IDEAS home Printed from
   My bibliography  Save this article

Justice and History: the big problem of Wilt Chamberlain


  • Steven Pressman


It is well-known that income inequality has risen sharply in the US and in other developed countries of late. One obvious economic solution to high and rising inequality, government redistribution, raises philosophical questions regarding ethics or fairness. In Anarchy, State and Utopia, Robert Nozick raises just such questions. He argues that people have the right to acquire things that result from their sweat and their effort, as long as enough remains for others. Once property is acquired, people have the right to transfer it to others. His famous Wilt Chamberlain example gives this argument concreteness. Nozick has us imagine people attending a basketball game and freely giving Wilt $1. In this case, Wilt is legitimately entitled to this money. And what is true of Wilt is true of everyone else. Redistribution by the government is therefore neither fair nor just. This paper provides a four-pronged rebuttal to the Wilt Chamberlain example from an economic perspective. First, the Wilt Chamberlain example begins with an assumption that is not likely to be true in the real world-that initial distributions, stretching back in history, are by-and-large just. Second, there is a sort of fallacy of composition in Nozick's argument that is similar to the adding-up problem in economics. Third, good evidence exists that allowing people to freely contribute to Wilt would not yield fair results and there is further evidence that it would hurt others and likely also hurt Wilt. Finally, for John Locke and for the Wilt Chamberlain example, sufficient things must be left over for others at the time property is acquired. This ignores future generations and whether there will be sufficient property available for them.

Suggested Citation

  • Steven Pressman, 2013. "Justice and History: the big problem of Wilt Chamberlain," Economic Issues Journal Articles, Economic Issues, vol. 18(1), pages 1-16, March.
  • Handle: RePEc:eis:articl:113pressman

    Download full text from publisher

    File URL:
    Download Restriction: no

    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Anthony B. Atkinson & Thomas Piketty & Emmanuel Saez, 2011. "Top Incomes in the Long Run of History," Journal of Economic Literature, American Economic Association, vol. 49(1), pages 3-71, March.
    2. Deininger, Klaus & Squire, Lyn, 1998. "New ways of looking at old issues: inequality and growth," Journal of Development Economics, Elsevier, vol. 57(2), pages 259-287.
    3. Harcourt,G. C., 1972. "Some Cambridge Controversies in the Theory of Capital," Cambridge Books, Cambridge University Press, number 9780521096720, May.
    4. Steven Pressman, 2011. "Policies to Reduce Child Poverty: Child Allowances Versus Tax Exemptions for Children," Journal of Economic Issues, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 45(2), pages 323-332.
    5. Sullström, Risto & Riihelä, Marja & Tuomala, Matti, 2010. "Trends in top income shares in Finland 1966-2007," Research Reports 157, VATT Institute for Economic Research.
    6. Christopher Brown, 2004. "Does income distribution matter for effective demand? Evidence from the United States," Review of Political Economy, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 16(3), pages 291-307.
    7. James Konow, 2003. "Which Is the Fairest One of All? A Positive Analysis of Justice Theories," Journal of Economic Literature, American Economic Association, vol. 41(4), pages 1188-1239, December.
    8. Zelleke, Almaz, 2005. "Distributive justice and the argument for an unconditional basic income," Journal of Behavioral and Experimental Economics (formerly The Journal of Socio-Economics), Elsevier, vol. 34(1), pages 3-15, February.
    Full references (including those not matched with items on IDEAS)

    More about this item


    Access and download statistics


    All material on this site has been provided by the respective publishers and authors. You can help correct errors and omissions. When requesting a correction, please mention this item's handle: RePEc:eis:articl:113pressman. See general information about how to correct material in RePEc.

    For technical questions regarding this item, or to correct its authors, title, abstract, bibliographic or download information, contact: (Dan Wheatley). General contact details of provider: .

    If you have authored this item and are not yet registered with RePEc, we encourage you to do it here. This allows to link your profile to this item. It also allows you to accept potential citations to this item that we are uncertain about.

    If CitEc recognized a reference but did not link an item in RePEc to it, you can help with this form .

    If you know of missing items citing this one, you can help us creating those links by adding the relevant references in the same way as above, for each refering item. If you are a registered author of this item, you may also want to check the "citations" tab in your RePEc Author Service profile, as there may be some citations waiting for confirmation.

    Please note that corrections may take a couple of weeks to filter through the various RePEc services.

    IDEAS is a RePEc service hosted by the Research Division of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis . RePEc uses bibliographic data supplied by the respective publishers.