Since Robert Nozick blogging is hot now, let me chime in and say that I think Jon Chait and Steven Metcalf have misunderstand what the “Wilt Chamberlain Example” in Anarchy, State, and Utopia is supposed to prove (though arguably so does Jason Kuznicki). It’s a weak argument, but for basically different reasons than is commonly supposed. The issue is that Nozick starts by considering something he calls a “patterned” theory of fair distribution of economic justice. Like maybe you think economic arrangements are fair if and only if they create a such-and-such gini coefficient. So the point here is that you, the dastardly egalitarian, have conceded the justness of the ex ante income distribution. And then suddenly a bunch of people show up voluntarily and voluntarily pay Wilt Chamberlain money to watch him play basketball. Suddenly Wilt Chamberlain is rich and the “pattern” has been disrupted. But what’s wrong with that?
This isn’t supposed to prove anything about Wilt Chamberlain or any high-income individuals. It’s supposed to prove that you shouldn’t hold to a “patterned” theory of distribution. Which is fine, since as best I can tell nobody does hold such a theory. This argument is identical in its force to the one John Rawls gives for focusing on the justice of social institutions (the “basic structure” in his phrase) rather than particular situations. Rawls indicates that optimal social institutions would feature a progressive consumption tax, such that there’s nothing wrong with Chamberlain acquiring a vast stockpile of cash in the bank. Then when he starts spending that money on stuff, taxes will be paid. Sensible utilitarian accounts of morality bring us even further afield from the slightly odd idea of a “patterned” theory of just distribution.
In general, I think it’s quite difficult to say what any of this has to do with actual political controversies. In my experience as a professional political pundit, the study of political philosophy doesn’t get you very far in terms of illuminate real controversies even relative to other branches of philosophy.