Entitlement theory

Entitlement theory is a theory of distributive justice and private property created by Robert Nozick in his book Anarchy, State, and Utopia. 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.


Nozick’s entitlement theory comprises 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 is based on John Locke’s ideas. Under entitlement theory, people are represented as ends in themselves and equals, as Kant claimed, though different people may own (i.e. be entitled to) different amounts of property. Nozick’s ideas create a strong system of private property and a free-market economy. The only just transaction is a voluntary one. Taxation of the rich to support full robust social programs for the poor are unjust because the state is acquiring money by force instead of through a voluntary transaction. However, Nozick’s ideas can endorse the creation of a minimal social program for the poor. Every person in the state of nature can achieve a certain level of welfare according to their own abilities. This level of welfare, while not equal, must be maintained via the Lockean Proviso. Given the justice of acquisition condition and the Lockean Proviso, “It is conceivable that in the normal operation of the economy, a private property regime might at some times, for some people, fail to provide access to this level of welfare when left to itself. If so, then justice—as the libertarian understands it—demands that the state act to correct the distribution of welfare generated by the spontaneous play of market forces.”


Differences from other ideals

Entitlement theory contrasts sharply with the Principles of Justice 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 such inequality is “reasonably expected to be to everyone’s advantage” (Rawls 1999: 53). There is a further provision that such inequalities are only permissible insofar as there is an equality of opportunity to benefit from these inequalities. Nozick instead argues that people who have or produce certain things have rights over them: “on an entitlement view, [production and distribution] 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”


The Ethics Of Entitlement

It’s a term that seems to get thrown around a lot these days. Between the rise of ‘Generation Y’ (or Generation ‘Me’ as I’ve heard it termed by cranky old people), the universal belt-tightening in the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis, and the proliferation of social media that gives individuals an audience like never before, you can’t have a discussion about social issues without the phrase ‘Entitlement’ being throw around.

Much like manipulation, the term conjures up a pretty ugly image of spoilt brats who don’t appreciate what they have, always demand more, and complain about absolutely everything despite living in the most prosperous era of human history (broadly speaking). Indeed one glance over the average facebook feed is enough to make you weep; people bitching about their jobs not being good enough, whinging that their parents don’t respect them, moaning that life is so unfair and that society is letting them down because they’re not rich, famous and living in a utopian world already.

Because that’s what the entire attitude all comes down to in the end – the unthinking certainty that the world owes them something. That life should be fair and that it’s everybody else’s fault that it sometimes isn’t. They expect the world, but don’t think they should have to do anything to earn it.

This narrative has been flying thick and fast as the Australian Government released its budget this week – a budget which, according to its main architect, heralded the end of the “Age of Entitlement” in Australia, including (among other things) the scrapping of funding for the disabled, Aboriginal people and environment initiatives, the selling of public institutions (including the Mint ironically enough), removing the caps on university fees and privatizing student debt, the creation of a $7 co-payment to be made every time you visit the doctor (where this could previously have been bulk billed for free), and the slashing of welfare across the board (the most notable of which being a 6 month delay before anyone can claim unemployment benefits). Oh and a couple of increases to fuel and income tax just for good measure

For those paying attention this was all pretty standard Right-wing policy (the Right deregulates, the Left regulates. The Right saves, the Left spends.) but what’s new is the way the entire thing is being spun. It isn’t just the usual angle of being an ‘economically responsible move necessary for growth so suck it up sunshine’, but rather as the correction of a deep-seated sociological problem – this budget is being pitched as a way of ending the entitlement that we are told plagues our society.

People expecting welfare immediately after becoming unemployed or after leaving university, without putting in 6 months of effort to find work first, and who obviously think working at McDonalds is ‘beneath them’. People thinking they can just show up at the doctor as often as they like because someone else will pay for it. People assuming that, just because life dealt them a tough hand with a disability, unexpected pregnancy, or a decade of unbelievably high house prices and competition for rental properties, it’s somehow everyone else’s responsibility to pay for them to get their shit together.

Entitled people, leaching off those who have done the work they needed to do, and made the sacrifices they needed to make to be successful! Why should the rich be expected to support those without the aptitude to be rich themselves? About time we stop mollycoddling them, I say! Let them fend for themselves in the real world and give them an education from the school of hard knocks!

Entrancing, isn’t it? And quite persuasive on the surface. There is no denying after all that there are a lot of people out there these days who genuinely expect life to be a certain way for them regardless of whether they do anything to deserve it – if that isn’t entitlement then I don’t know what is. But the far more important question (which the new Australian Government is oddly quiet about) is whether there is anything wrong with that.

You know how it’s said that we always neglect the ones we love? That we take our parents for granted and say things to our partners that we would never dare say to complete strangers? Taking people for granted like this is clearly rude, selfish and based entirely on the certainty that they are not going to abandon you no matter how you behave. On the other hand, it’s also the entire basis for the relationship. For a relationship to thrive there must be trust – trust that the other person is going to return your respect and affection and won’t hurt you, exploit you or abandon you. But this trust also assumes that the other person won’t up and run if you do screw up or your circumstances start to suck. In other words, unless there’s enough trust that we feel entitled to the relationship, the relationship does not exist. The stronger the trust in a relationship, the stronger that sense of entitlement becomes, with the most positive relationships (such as with one’s parents or partner) being pretty much based on an entitlement so strong that the concept of the other person leaving is completely unthinkable.

This can obviously go too far and may stray into exploitation; we’ve all met someone who reacts to the assumption that their parents or partner will never abandon them by treating the other party like crap. But for the most part we treat the certainty of our parents’ and partners’ support to challenge ourselves, grow and try new things – things we wouldn’t have the courage or resources to try if we weren’t certain that someone else had our back no matter what.

This is not to say that trust and entitlement are the same thing; think of it rather as entitlement involving so much trust that it is basically a given.

So does this imply that it’s possible for entitlement to be OK, or even a positive thing in some circumstances? Is there really anything in life that we can assume we deserve no matter what?

Of course there is! We assume without thinking that the law will protect us, that we will never be thrown out of our homes or have our property stolen without consequences, and that wholesale civil violence will never be a problem. We assume without question that we will never be repressed by our own military and that (no matter how bad it gets) the government will never enslave and exploit us. We assume that our basic dignity as a human being will be respected and that those who seek to take it away from us will be stopped and brought to justice. There are, in short, plenty of things that we take completely for granted as citizens of Australia and feel completely entitled to.

But are we right to do so? On what basis can we claim that we are justly entitled to our safety, security and pursuit of happiness? Doesn’t the importance of these issues in fact demand that we not assume they are guaranteed? “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance” and all that?

The answer is surprisingly simple: we are justified in feeling entitled to these basic foundations of society because doing so just works better – and is significantly better than the alternatives. Imagine for a second what life would be like if we had to be vigilant ever second of every day to ensure that the most foundational aspects of society were maintained; that it was each of our individual responsibilities to monitor and protect against violence, tyranny and suffering. Sounds pretty good on paper until you realise that it would utterly swamp your life and you’d never get anything else done. It is the simple fact that we can feel entitled to being able to buy food from the shops at a reasonable price that means we don’t spend all our time farming to survive.

To be sure, entitlement did not create these guarantees, but it was the purpose of them being created in the first place. Not having to worry about security, food supply, essential infrastructure and decent healthcare means that we are free to pursue higher things such as art, industry, political involvement, science and all the other things that further advance that society. Eliminate the entitlement underlying this arrangement and you also kill these opportunities that rely on it.

Yes, all these guarantees come at a cost and I’m sure it is galling for the wealthy to contribute to things like free healthcare, welfare, affordable university, minimum wage regulations, labour laws and environmental protection when they don’t need any of those services themselves (and with many of them, actually reducing their profits to boot). But what these elites find very easy to forget in their privilege is that their wealth is only possible because those services existed in the first place. Good luck starting a successful business without the guarantee of clean water, electricity, roads and security. And good luck supplying all or any of those services yourself and making a profit – you’ll quickly find out that being able to charge high prices for the essentials and paying workers peanuts is an either/or scenario.

Can entitlement be taken too far? Absolutely – these services don’t come for free and it is everyone’s duty to contribute to them through taxes, political participation and work. But to argue that everyone should contribute the same, regardless of their circumstance, their abilities or all the factors in life that are totally beyond their control is not just callous, simplistic and greedy; it also undermines the very trust that makes it possible for those services to exist in the first place, which in turn made it possible for those rich enough not to need them, to get rich in the first place.

When we look at the long march of human progress over time the pattern is clear – every generation we work to make sure that the next generation can worry less about simply surviving, and more about where we are going; advancing the human race even further to the benefit of us all.

Arguing that we should roll-back these achievements of our forebears, for the profit of the (very) few at the expense of the (very) many? That’s not just entitled, that’s a one giant step backwards for all mankind.



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 skillet’s friends and children. Nozick says

“Bequeathing something to others is an expression of caring about them  … yet bequests 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”

Furthermore, the notion of taxation being inherently unjust, and market transactions being inherently just, depends on the notion that they actually are as voluntary or involuntary as they appear: in a nation that permits free emigration of its citizens, taxation is not entirely involuntary, while market transactions for necessary goods and services can hardly be said to be entirely voluntary, and if the wealthy, or organized labor, or those in control of de facto industry standards are able to exert undue influence on such a market, they frequently skew those transactions to favor their own interests.