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Justice and History: the big problem of Wilt Chamberlain

Listed author(s):
  • Steven Pressman
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    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.

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    Article provided by Economic Issues in its journal Economic Issues.

    Volume (Year): 18 (2013)
    Issue (Month): 1 (March)
    Pages: 1-16

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    Handle: RePEc:eis:articl:113pressman
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    1. 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.
    2. 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.
    3. 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.
    4. 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.
    5. Harcourt,G. C., 1972. "Some Cambridge Controversies in the Theory of Capital," Cambridge Books, Cambridge University Press, number 9780521096720.
    6. 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.
    7. Steven Pressman, 2011. "Policies to Reduce Child Poverty: Child Allowances Versus Tax Exemptions for Children," Journal of Economic Issues, M.E. Sharpe, Inc., vol. 45(2), pages 323-332, June.
    8. Marja Riihelä & Risto Sullström & Matti Tuomala, 2010. "Trends in top income shares in Finland 1966-2007," Research Reports 157, Government Institute for Economic Research Finland (VATT).
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