Nozick's conception of justice sets rights as the principles from which the state can take legitimacy to operate: "individuals have rights and there are things no person or group may do to them. So strong and far-reaching are these rights that they raise the question of what, if anything, the state and its officials may do". He supports fully the idea that there is a right to self-ownership and it is because of this that the role of the state must remain limited; no redistributive tasks should ever be implemented, because this would be a serious infringement on individuals' liberty. Property rights are granted as an effect of our right to self-ownership: our actions are legitimate as long as they do not limit the rights of other individuals; we can do what we desire with what we possess as long as it is not detrimental to external people and as long as what we possess has been obtained through legitimate steps (i.e. without limiting others' people rights), following the two principles of entitlements: just acquisition and just transfer.
Nonetheless Nozick's account of rights, both concerning self-ownership and property, present important weaknesses both within the theory itself and on the assumptions on which it is built. He takes self-ownership as an axiom and leave to our intuition the task of justifying its validity: "Nozick takes the value of private property rights to be self-evident because they link with individual freedom". Without a justifiable explanation for the existence of property rights it is not clear why the only positive actions of the state will be the protection of such property. I would argue that the right of self-ownership is secondary to other rights in a lexicographic order, and this has important implications insofar as it allows patterning and redistribution to take place. Moreover I argue that even the minimal state proposed by Nozick can actually expand in an agency with large redistributive tasks, even if it was just for the protection of property. Ryan's 'professorship's example' show how narrow and dry Nozick's entitlement theory is.
Nozick's conception of self-ownership emerges from the fact that individuals' lives are to be considered separately, that we have different existences, values, tastes, needs, endowments and affections, but none of the mentioned elements can provide the basis to construct a universal theory of rights. Our individuality as a whole must be respected, no matter what we believe and how we act. Our independence is the primary basis for understanding the limits of the state. One person must not be used as a resource to another or to an external agency. No coercion can be used to take away resources to someone not willing to give them up: "According to the thesis of self-ownership each of us is the rightful owner of our own body...this has also consequences for liberty: what I do is my business, and I can do whatever I like, provided I respect the rights of others". Setting self-ownership as the first political right has fundamental implication for the kind of state which will emerge. The best and only legitimate way for the state to cope with this right, is to protect it without starting any process of redistribution not connected with the protection of self-ownership itself. According to Nozick self-ownership has one important implication in the field o legitimacy: all actions are legitimate if they are voluntary and if they do not infringe the self-ownership of others.
In Nozick's view there is a direct relationship between self-ownership and property rights. We have the rightful possession of ourselves and through ourselves we rightfully possess other things. The identity between self-ownership and property is so self-evident that it does not even need to b questioned. Nozick investigates how things come to be legitimately owned, but he does not question the legitimacy of property in itself. The latter is taken as an axiom; it is only the way we acquire things which can be questioned. In fact the core of Nozick's theory of justice can be restricted to a justice in holdings, which itself can be subdivided in three groups: the original acquisition of holdings (the appropriation of unheld things), the transfer of holding, and the principle of rectification which must take place when the first two have not been respected. Self-ownership is respected when the actual distribution of property is the result of the first two principles. If people appropriated things in the correct way then they would not infringe others' self-ownership and would be wholly justified in doing what they do, no matter what they would do. The state instead would not be justified in entering the individual's sphere to alter what people do with what they have (re-distribution) because this would simply be a limitation to the right of self-ownership.
Nozick assumes the existence of property, but the right that we have on it must respect what he describes as 'the entitlement theory'. Only if the first two steps of the entitlement theory have been respected, we will have a right to what we possess. The great problem of Nozick's theory is that it is deficitary when it comes to explain the principle of first acquisition. He himself claims that there is a difficulty in saying that the acquisition of unheld property is justified when "someone is made worse off by another's appropriation by losing the opportunity to improve his situation by a particular appropriation or any one". He calls this the 'weaker requirement'. This allows acquisition of property unlike its stronger counter-parts "when someone is made worse off by no longer being able to use freely what he prviously could". It is not clear why when acting in the weak way, a legitimate right to property is created and Nozick does not really explain it. The puzzle is emphasised by the fact that the theory of acquisition is at the foundation of Nozick's theory of entitlement. By having a weak foundation the whole construction is flawed. He tries to reinforce it through an argumentation against those which he describes as 'patterned theory of justice', but these critiques presuppose the existence of a justifiable right to property which he does not construe. Nozick stresses the superiority of his entitlement theory because it his historical compared to the patterned 'current time-slice theories' which advocate a right to redistribution for the state which infringes individual's property and with it their right to self-government. Nozick can be criticised even on his own ground. Especially in regard to the principle of rectification and to the principle of just transfer, while we have already stressed how the principle of acquisition itself is not clarified.
The historical entitlement theory of property rights he proposes can hardly be seen as a way of keeping the role of the state limited. He strongly minimises the scope of action for the principle of rectification. In a condition of slavery, people were deprived both of their self-onwership and also (if they were war-slaves) of what they possessed. A property acquired through an infringement of right was afterwards passed to other generations, but the state could still advocate the right to rectify a series of wrong. Nevertheless these enfringements of rights have difficulties in being quantified and subjectively different groups might think of being discriminated more than it was rightful. The state could advocate important measures of redistribution to correct this wrongness. However Nozick does not seem to allow this to happen and remain extremely vague on the scope of the rectification principle. This example is relevant in a discussion of property rights because it stresses the presence of conflicting principles in the right of different individuals to the same property, and points to the possibilities that the state might have to infringe the right of property in order to rectify injustices which had created historical structural inequalities.
A second example, proposed by Ryan Cheyney, illustrates a problem in the area of transfer of holdings. Throughout the second section, implicitly or explicitly, Nozick stresses how the fact that inequalities of holdings are protracted from one generation to another through inheritance must not be seen as an injustice because the right of one person to decide what to do with his own holding is the basis of the principle of transfer. If the state advocated the right to decide to whom holdings should be passed to, it would infringe the right of self-ownership. Ryan offers the example of the holding of professorship: no professor has the right to pass his office to his children. This simply shows that the right of possessing something, cannot always be translated in a right of transferring it. Different principles, other than self-ownership or property rights must necessarily enter into the discussion.
Imagine moreover another situation where a parent instead of transferring wealth, transfers debt to his son. Nozick would probably reply that if the son agreed to take the burden of debt of the father then there would not be an infringement in the creditor's right. However if the son did not agree, the creditor would become a victim of injustice, and who would be in charge of repaying him for this infringement. If no insurance policies had been set up, a rectification would once more be in need and who should pay? There is no clear answer to this problem. Once more there is an issue in what it is defined as property right, because this property can be seen as something beneficial (wealth) but also detrimental to those who receive it. And if they do not accept the burden of this property, an external agency will be needed to judge the goodness or wrongness of a disclaim over property.
There is a further possibility from which the theory of the minimal state proposed by Nozick to defend self-ownership could be discredited. He accepts a minimal intrusion of the state to take place in order to allow a protective agency to be set up in order to protect self-ownership and private property. Nevertheless we could imagine the possibility of an enlarging gap between rich and poor and an increasingly higher need of taxation over the rich in order to safeguard their own property, with the poor unjustly trying to go against the property of the wealthiest. At a certain point the gap would be so big that the most effective way to protect the rich is through a process of redistribution of wealth. This hyperbolic example serves to show that even taking the same premises of Nozick's, there is still a discrepancy between a right to self-ownership and a property right and in a particular occasion the latter must be infringed in order to safeguard the former.
The problem with Nozick's account is that he does not allow for a lexicography of rights. He simply underlines the separate and fully rightful nature of the individual. If a lexicographic order had to be invented for Nozick the right to self-ownership and the right to private property would have priority, but is not clear on what basis these would be granted their places. I believe that while there is a right to self-ownership this must be put in a lexicographic order with other rights. The importance of Nozick lies on the fact that he challenges our serial order of the position of rights, the right to self ownership comes for Nozick before the right of life for everyone. Nozick right-based argument must be confronted with other right-based arguments. Waldron describes the latter as those which show "that an individual interest considered in itself is sufficiently important from a moral point of view to justify people to be under a duty to promote it". Nozick would claim that the most important individual interest is 'self-ownership' and the only way to promote it is through a non-infringement of it. A right to self-ownership exists, but its position is secondary to those rights which allow it to come into existence. The right to life is in a serial position more important than a right to self-ownership because the latter without the former would be meaningless. The existence of freedom can be granted only after the existence of the individual is. The right to property comes even after the right to self-ownership.
According to Nozick we have an almost absolute right to self ownership and this has direct powerful implications on the rights we have to private property. Once our independence has been granted, our choices of what we do with what we own cannot be criticised or changed, no rights can justify re-distribution and the formula on which interactions should be built is "from each as they choose, to each as they are chosen".
This absolutist conception of property rights emerging from self-ownership has deficiencies and we argue that there are inherent paradoxes when such an importance is given to property rights. In Nozick's account in fact what emerges is not the individuals having a right to property, but property having a right of its own. Property is not functional to human beings, it is essential to them. With such a strong perspective on self-ownership it is easy to see how any interactions between people cannot be normatively regulated and how other essential needs must be subordinated to the need of independence. Rights to self-ownership and to property exist, but they must be analysed separately and must be given the right position in a lexicographic order, otherwise the state which will emerge will be neither just nor inspiring.