Published online by Cambridge University Press: 18 December 2006
This paper critically assesses the “procedural” accounts of political justice set forth by John Rawls in A Theory of Justice (1971) and Robert Nozick in Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974). I argue that the areas of agreement between Rawls and Nozick are more significant than their disagreements. Even though Nozick offers trenchant criticisms of Rawls's argument for economic redistribution (the “difference principle”), Nozick's own economic libertarianism is undermined by his “principle of rectification,” which he offers as a possible ground in practice for the application of something like the difference principle. Both Rawls's and Nozick's accounts of justice fail because of their abstraction from human nature as a ground of right. At the same time the libertarianism on which they agree in the non-economic sphere would deprive a free society of its necessary moral underpinning. Rawls and Nozick err, finally, by demanding that the policies pursued by a just society conform to theoretical formulas concocted by philosophy professors, rather than leaving room (as Lockean liberalism does) for the adjustment of policies to particular circumstances based on statesmen's prudential judgment and the consent of the governed. Particularly troubling from the perspective of a citizen seriously concerned with the advancement of justice and freedom is both thinkers' shrill denunciations of existing liberal societies for failing to conform to their particular strictures.