Nozick on justice (of immigration)

By Joliene

Best known for: his book Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974), a libertarian answer to John Rawls‘ A Theory of Justice (1971)

“Our main conclusions about the state are that a minimal state, limited, to the narrow functions of protection against force, theft, fraud, enforcement of contracts, and so on, is justified, but any more extensive state will violate persons’ rights not to be forced to do certain things, and is unjustified; and that the minimal state is inspiring as well as right.” -Nozick

Is it ‘just’ for foreigners to come into another country to start a there a new home?

According to Nozick, people are ‘self-owners’. He says that they have the right to their own body, mind and opportunities and use these how they want it. People also have the right of the products that they produce, because they own the bodies and minds that create the products. Nozick rejects the concept of distributive justice (a system in which an instance of the wealth in a society distributes or redistributes to a certain standard)

He argues that an ethically just social system should have three principles that determine when someone can make claim to one thing or product (in this case a place you call home):

1. The principle of justice in acquisition. This principle should describe how things could get an owner.

2. The principle of justice in transfer. This principle should describe how things can and should change owners and what conditions apply here.

However, the world is not perfect and sometimes people have things that they have no rights because they are not obtained through the above principles, but, for example through theft or fraud. To correct this situation, there is a third principle:

3. The principle of rectification of injustice in holdings. This principle describes a situation in which someone has a property that is not obtained in the preceding principles, how to correct it and who should correct it.

Nozick ethics is a procedural ethics: whether a particular situation is just depended on whether they came through the proper procedures. The purpose of government should be to ensure that any distribution of goods takes place according to the rules of principles, and where it does not apply. However, if the government does intervene and pursue a redistribution of the goods or things as citizenship, this is contrary to the self -ownership of people and therefore immoral.

Nozick therefore calls for a minimum of government intervention: a minimal state, or, as he calls it , a “night -watchman state” (if you have never heard of this word:

Would this minimal state be justified in restricting immigration? Nozick never answers this question directly, but his argument at a number of points suggests not. According to Nozick the state has no right to do anything other than enforce the rights which individuals already enjoy in the state of nature. Citizenship gives rise to no distinctive claim. The state is obliged to protect the rights of citizens and noncitizens equally because it enjoys a de facto monopoly over the enforcement of rights within its territory. Individuals have the right to enter into voluntary exchanges with other individuals. They possess this right as individuals, not as citizens. The state may not interfere with such exchanges so long as they do not violate someone else’s rights.

This implies for immigration the following. Suppose a farmer from the Netherlands wants to hire workers from Morocco. The government has no right to prohibit him from doing this. To prevent the Moroccans from coming would be against the rights of both the Dutch farmer and the Moroccan workers. Of course, Dutch workers might be disadvantaged by this competition with foreign workers. But Nozick explicitly denies that anyone has a right to be protected against competitive disadvantage. Even if the Moroccans did not have job offers from a Dutchman, a Nozickean government would have no grounds for preventing them from entering the country. So long as they were peaceful and did not steal, trespass on private property, or otherwise violate the rights of other individuals, their entry and their actions would be none of the state’s business.

whoops, I forgot the references:

Dutch Wikipedia on Nozick.. for some reason the english one does not show the same focussed information on the principles. You can throw it in a translator if you want though.

Right to migrate


One thought on “Nozick on justice (of immigration)

  1. this is an excellent post! i really like the way you have applied a relevant theory to a situation that it does not consider. are there references that you need to include?

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