Rawls and Nozick on Liberty & Equality

James Otteson,

Release Date
September 16, 2011


Poverty & Inequality

Prof. James Otteson discusses the philosophers John Rawls and Robert Nozick, and their different views on liberty and equality. Rawls considered equality to be the moral benchmark for all social and political institutions, and felt that any deviation from equality must be specially justified. Nozick, on the other hand, considered liberty to be the more important value. He pointed out that there is an inevitable tension between liberty and equality: to maintain equal distribution in society, a central planner would have to constantly interfere with people’s personal choices. Alternatively, if a central planner left people free to make independent choices, any patterns of equality would ultimately be disrupted.

Rawls and Nozick on Liberty & Equality
One way to think about this tension between liberty and equality is to look at an exchange that took place between two of the great American political philosophers in the 20th century, Robert Nozick and John Rawls.
John Rawls had argued that equality was really the benchmark, the moral benchmark, for social and political institutions, and that any deviation from equality had to be specially justified.
Nozick argued, by contrast, he responded by saying, that liberty upsets patterns. Here’s what he meant by that. He starts with your preferred signature of distribution of goods or distribution of assets, whatever it is. The minute you allow human beings the freedom to make choices all on their own, they’re going to start upsetting that pattern because they’re going to make choices that you can’t predict based on their own unique schedule, preferences, and values, so the would-be planners faced with something of a decision to make. If you want to respect human liberty, you’re going to have to give up on the beautiful plan you have. On the other hand, if you’re not going to give up on the beauty of your pattern, then you’re going have to interfere with the liberty and choices of human beings, all the time, at every stage, at every iteration. So we are faced with a similar choice, aren’t we? Is equality so important to us that we think that we should and are justified in interfering with people’s liberty? Nozick’s answer to that was no. And the classic liberals answer is also no.