Entitlement Theory is a theory of private property created by Robert Nozick in his book Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Nozick’s theory is basically ethic according to contract rights. The theory is Nozick’s attempt to describe “justice in holdings” or what can be said about and done with the property people own when viewed from a principle of justice. Robert Nozick believes that everyone is entitled to contractual freedom, and that interfering with that freedom would be unethical. Freedom grants individuals the right to self development and self fulfillment. Liberty is a greater societal value than justice.
Nozick’s entitlement theory is comprised of 3 main principles:
1. A principle of justice in acquisition – This principle deals with the initial acquisition of holdings. It is an account of how people first come to own common property, what types of things can be held, and so forth.
2. A principle of justice in transfer – This principle explains how one person can acquire holdings from another, including voluntary exchange and gifts.
3. A principle of rectification of injustice – how to deal with holdings that are unjustly acquired or transferred, whether and how much victims can be compensated, how to deal with long past transgressions or injustices done by a government, and so on.
Nozick believes that if the world were wholly just, only the first two principles would be needed, as “the following inductive definition would exhaustively cover the subject of justice in holdings”:
1. A person who acquires a holding in accordance with the principle of justice in acquisition is entitled to that holding.
2. A person who acquires a holding in accordance with the principle of justice in transfer, from someone else entitled to the holding, is entitled to the holding.
3. No one is entitled to a holding except by (repeated) applications of 1 and 2.
Thus, Entitlement Theory would imply “a distribution is just if everyone is entitled to the holdings they possess under the distribution”. Unfortunately, not everyone follows these rules: “some people steal from others, or defraud them, or enslave them, seizing their product and preventing them from living as they choose, or forcibly exclude others from competing in exchanges”. Thus the third principle of rectification is needed.
Entitlement Theory contrasts sharply with the Difference Principle in Rawls’ A Theory of Justice, which states that each person has an equal claim to basic rights and liberties, and that inequality should only be permitted to the degree that it helps the people on the bottom. Nozick instead argues that people who have or produce certain things have rights over them: “on an entitlement view are not separate questions things come into the world already attached to people having entitlements over them”. Nozick believes that unjustly taking someone’s holdings violates their rights. “Holdings to which people are entitled may not be seized, even to provide equality of opportunity for others”. Thus, a system which works to reduce the rightfully earned holdings of some so that they can be equally distributed to others is immoral.
“The major objection to speaking of everyone’s having a right to various things such as equality of opportunity, life, and so on, and enforcing this right, is that these ‘rights’ require a substructure of things and materials and actions; and other people may have rights and entitlements over these. No one has a right to something whose realization requires certain uses of things and activities that other people have rights and entitlements over” (Nozick 1974:238).
Entitlement Theory also contrasts with the Marxist belief that there should be no inequality at all, and therefore no private ownership of the means of production or entitlements stemming from that.
In his later work, The Examined Life, Nozick reflects that Entitlement Theory’s defense of people’s holdings may have some problems, in that it could eventually lead to the vast majority of resources being pooled in the hands of the extremely skilled, or, through gifts and inheritance, in the hands of the extremely skilled’s friends and children. Nozick says
“Bequeathing something to others is an expression of caring about them yet bequests [are] sometimes passed on for generations to persons unknown to the original earner, producing continuing inequalities of wealth and position. .. The resulting inequalities seem unfair.
One possible solution would be to restructure an institution of inheritance so that taxes will subtract from the possessions people can bequeath the value of what they themselves have received through bequests. People then could leave to others only the amount they themselves have added.
The simple subtraction rule does not perfectly disentangle what the next generation has managed itself to contribute – inheriting wealth may make it easier to amass more – but it is a serviceable rule of thumb”.