Adam, a Native American, and George, an American of European descent, encounter each other on the street. Adam sees that George is carrying a shiny new Ipad 3.  So Adam clubs George over the head with a stick and takes it.

George: “Ow! Give that back!”

Adam: “No.”

George: “But that’s mine! You just took it from me.”

Adam: “Look. A lot of stuff has happened in the past. I took your Ipad. Your ancestors took my ancestors’ land. My ancestors took somebody else’s ancestors’ land. It’s all terribly complicated.”

George: “But you took my Ipad. Just now.”

Adam: “Do you really want to go back to the beginning of time and sort out all the injustices of history? That’s impossible.”

George: “I just want my Ipad back. And an icepack.”

Adam: “So you want to correct the injustices that have happened in the last five minutes, but ignore the ones that happened prior to that? That’s arbitrary. The only non-arbitrary approach is to start fresh from where we are. I’m sorry I took your Ipad. I see now that respect for property rights is important. So let’s try to be better about enforcing them. Life, liberty, and property…starting now!”

George, stepping toward Adam: “Look, buddy. Just give me the damn Ipad.”

Adam: “Ack! Help! I’m being aggressed against!”

Figuring out what to do about past injustices is a tough problem for any political theory. Libertarians like Karl Hess and Murray Rothbard have tried, at least briefly, to grapple with it. Robert Nozick acknowledged the problem, but doesn’t say much about it. Loren Lomasky thinks Nozick’s brief concession is enough to undermine his libertarianism altogether. Jan Narveson disagrees.

Obviously, this is not the sort of issue that’s going to be resolved in a short blog post. But there are three things that I think libertarians in particular should keep in mind when thinking about it.

First, culpability is a red herring. It’s easy to try to avoid the problem of historical injustice by pointing out that we weren’t the ones who committed it. So how can libertarianism sanction punishing C for a crime that A committed against B? The answer, of course, is that it cannot sanction punishing C. But it can, at least on some plausible interpretations of libertarian principles, sanction redistributing resources from C to B. If A steals from B and bequeaths the stolen property to C, B clearly has a right against C, even if C has acted entirely innocently. Sometimes, in other words, the point isn’t that we have acted wrongly. It is that we have benefited from injustice in a way that we were not entitled to benefit. Receipt of such benefits could be understood as a kind of strict liability offense.

Second, an over-reliance on so-called “methodological individualism” sometimes leads libertarians to be unnecessarily obtuse in thinking about historical injustice. “Only individuals act,” we sometimes like to say. Or even “there are no groups, only individuals.” But there are groups, and they matter. Individuals belong to families that transmit economic, cultural, and other advantages (and disadvantages) from one generation to the next. Individuals have racial, religious, and ethnic identities, and those identities shape the way they are treated by other individuals and institutions both consciously and subconsciously, intentionally and unintentionally. Put these two kinds of identity together and it’s easy enough to see that injustices against an individual in one generation can negatively affect other individuals in later generations. And that systematic injustices against certain groups of individuals can have systematic effects on other members of those groups in later generations.

Finally, whatever the intrinsic philosophical merit of “the past is complicated so let’s just start fresh” approach, we ought to bear in mind that this sounds awfully convenient when the person who endorses it is one of the people who has emerged at the top of the bloody and murderous mess that is our collective history. I’m not saying such people are arguing in bad faith, and I’m not even denying that there’s something correct about this approach. But it’s at least worth considering how attractive we would find it if the shoe were on the other foot. Perhaps historical injustices would loom a little larger in our moral vision if we ourselves were the ones continuing to suffer from them?

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  • Mark LeBar

    “If A steals from B and bequeaths the stolen property to C, B clearly has a right against C, even if C has acted entirely innocently.” Does D have a right against C in virtue of standing in some sort of relationship of group membership with A? Does E have a right to compel C to compensate D because of what B did to A?

    It seems to me to be one thing to point to wrongful and unjust conduct, and say the wrongdoer should not be allowed to benefit, and if possible the victim should be made whole. It’s another to think that general conditions that arise from such conduct themselves give a reason for rectification. None of that goes very far in thinking about property rights, but it does suggest that the case for rectification of the sort you consider here, Matt, is anything like as powerful as you seem to support.

    • I agree that there are serious problems in supposing that the “general conditions that arise” from unjust conduct give reason for rectification. In the example I gave that you cite, there is an identifiable good taken from B by A, and then given to C. This is the kind of example where the case for rectification is strongest. But even a case like this can cause ripple effects, positive and negative, on third-parties D and E. The case for rectification seems less strong with respect to these effects. A lot will depend, I think, on the nature of the harm, the nature of the benefit, and the precise causal nature of the mechanisms by which those harms and benefits are produced and transmitted from one person to another.

  • Adam

    ‎”Second, an over-reliance on so-called “methodological individualism” sometimes leads libertarians to be unnecessarily obtuse in thinking about historical injustice.”

    Author ignores that methodological individualism recognizes that groups *do* exist, but that the libertarian thought on this subject is largely that you can’t reach justice for a group by aggression against individuals. 

    Also, the author never proposes that there is some vehicle which is capable of determining *who* alive is benefitting from the injustice, how such determination is to be made. Example: Many Americans are mixed race – white and black. Should they compensation, or be compensated? Should recent black immigrants be paid, or exempted? There were white slaves and indentured servants – how can we find their ancestors? What if someone was the offspring of a white owner and black slave? What’s a generic framework for finding “social justice?” Isn’t the risk of “social injustice” a lot greater than any “justice” that might possibly be achieved? How to identify and prevent abuse? How as a society would we decide what the bar is which an alleged offense would have to reach, then who should determine the compensation, victim, and responsible parties?

    Most famously, Mises said, essentially, “Law is nothing more or less than legalized injustice,” and let’s face it, the injustices cited in these discussions were by and large “legal” in that they were created by democratic law systems. The idea that there is some legalistic way to solve them is, therefore, from that perspective, hopeless.”I’m not saying such people are arguing in bad faith, and I’m not even denying that there’s something correct about this approach. But it’s at least worth considering how attractive we would find it if the shoe were on the other foot. Perhaps historical injustices would loom a little larger in our moral vision if we ourselves were the ones continuing to suffer from them?”The author would say, based on the above quote, that my previous point about no way to achieve this within the framework of laws was off-point, that the author never advocates this.I would respond by pointing out the quote immediately above by calling it a passive-aggressive copout.”But there are three things that I think libertarians in particular should keep in mind when thinking about it.”In summary – another critique of libertarianism by an author, based on,1. Unfamiliarity with the volume of libertarian writings on a subject2. Logical leap to conclude, therefore must not exist3. Strawman attack4. ?5. Profit!

    • You can call me Matt, if you’d like.

      You’re right that I don’t propose a mechanism. Obviously it’s important that some such mechanism be developed, but I see that as a problem to be worked out a few steps down the road. My post is about more basic moral principles.

      Of course, if there’s *no* mechanism by which a set of principles can be implemented, that’s a strong reason (I think) to reject those principles. 

      But here’s what a lot of people, perhaps including you, seem to say about this sort of thing: 1) there’s a lot of uncertainty regarding who benefited and who suffered from past injustice, 2) therefore we have no idea how to go about rectifying past injustice. But 2 clearly doesn’t follow from 1. Just because there are a lot of things we don’t know, this doesn’t mean that we don’t know anything, or that we shouldn’t try to act on the basis of our limited and imperfect information.

      Your comment seems to go downhill a bit in the last paragraph. What is the volume of libertarian literature on restitution to which you refer? And why don’t you cite any of it? And why do you assume I’m being passive-aggressive rather than genuinely uncertain about a lot of these issues? Or that you know what I’ve read and what I haven’t? Someone preaching epistemic humility ought to be more inclined to practice it.

  • Aeon Skoble

    Piling on with Mark: your example works for some circumstances but not others.  If Smith is a wealthy landowner whose family fortune was built on slavery, then your argument shows us why Jones, a descendent of those slaves has a claim against Smith.  But a lot of the real world examples don’t fall out that neatly.  Stipulate that early Dutch settlers swindled their way into Manhattan.  Fast forward 300 years, and there’s a huge city there, and some grossly impoverished Jew from Russia emigrates there and gets work as a roofer.  After a few years, he has saved enough to buy a house.  Does _he_ owe reparations to the descendents of the “original” owners of Manhattan? 
    Second point: here’s why it should matter to you that libertarianism escehews “groups” – your social justice agenda can’t afford that kind of analysis.  Why should Colin Powell be entitled to “redistributed” wealth from a recent immigrant from Latvia who works in a lumberyard?

    • Konrad_Lorenz

      Regarding the second point, what _is_ the point?  If a redistribution of property eliminates a great deal of injustice, while incidentally also creating some new justice, is it not an increase in justice?  Are we supposed to take away from your point a mindless acceptance (and police enforcement) of the status quo?

  • Adam

    Please pardon the formatting failure.

  • Jacob T. Levy


  • One other issue here that probably deserves mention: the non-identity problem. Here is the problem.

    The people who we intuitively think of as the victims of historical injustice would otherwise not have existed if not for the injustice. If European colonists had not wronged Native Americans in the past, a different set of Native Americans would now exist. But how can you wrong someone by causing them to exist?

    More abstractly, it is hard to make sense of the idea that agent A’s actions in the past can wrong agent B if B would otherwise not have existed. If anything, maybe B should thank A because B’s life is worth living and so it seems that A actually benefited B.

    There are now some proposed solutions to this problem, but I think the jury is till out on whether they work.

    One serious possibility is that no one is owed compensation for historical injustice. Of course, historical injustices often explain why groups today are the victims of injustice. But we don’t need to cite historical injustice to explain why these groups are owed compensation.

    • What makes your statement true but the following false?
      The people who we intuitively thing of as the victims of robbery would otherwise not have existed if not for the robberies. If Adam had not wronged George in the past, a different George would now exist. But how can you wrong someone by causing them to exist? More abstractly, it is hard to make sense of the idea that Adam’s actions in the past can wrong George if George would otherwise not have existed. If anything, maybe George should thank Adam because George’s life is worth living and so it seems that Adam actually benefited George. 

      • It seems to me that your statement is true. If Adam’s actions were a necessary condition for George to exist, then Adam does not wrong George. In fact, George should be grateful that Adam acted as he did because Adam’s actions caused George to have an enormous benefit: the benefit of living.

        • You have just argued that no victim of any crime, has been wronged by the perpetrator, so long as the victim survives (i.e., has “the benefit of living”).  

  • How about a simple, “The children are not responsible for the sins of their parents”? If my father kills someone, I don’t go to jail for it. And I am not responsible for what much older ancestors have done. Period. Temporal collectivism is no better an idea than the spatial kind. In the end, it’s but a fancy kind of racism.

    • Well, this is just name calling, not reasoning. It is just as true to call your view a fancy kind of racism or perhaps a fancy justification for existing racism. Neither label moves the analysis along. 

      • Not at all. If someone believes I am responsible for the actions of others of my race, they are a racist. It’s almost the very definition of racism. And refusing to call things what they are is what does not move things along.

        • Refusing to recognize the benefits conferred on you and your ancestors because of your and their race  is itself racist.  This is why name-calling does not move the debate along.

          •  Please learn the difference between name-calling and defining.

            My question is, where does it end? The British took land from the Native Americans (in my case, meaning one set of ancestors took land from another set of ancestors). But the French took over Britain in 1066. Do the French owe the British? And Rome invaded Gaul/France. Do the Italians owe the French? Perhaps one could argue that invading Iraq was retribution for the behavior of the Mesopotamians. Any ending point is going to necessarily be arbitrary. Start this very second? No. Start with this generation? Certainly.

          • But you are not defining anything. Rather, you are  misusing the charged term “racist” as an ad hominem attack, in lieu of offering a reasoned argument for your position. (FYI, any argument that proceeds as follows is not a reasoned argument: “I believe X. Period.”)  Indeed, now you agree that there should be some “temporal collectivism” but “any ending point is going to necessarily be arbitrary.” And — what a coincidence! — your admittedly arbitrary position is to suggest your own birth as the “ending point.” The result is that you emerge from the womb unsullied by history, and anyone who says otherwise is “racist.”  

          •  I did not make an ad hominem attack. What say you learn what an ad hominem attack is before you accuse people of making the same. No one was attacked. I pointed out that if one makes the argument that someone is culpable for the actions of their ancestors, that the argument is based on the same kinds of arguments as race-based arguments. One is not necessarily calling someone a racist just because one points out that an argument being made is essentially racial in nature. The person in question may be unaware that their argument is a race-based argument, and would not have made that argument had they realized that.

            And the point of one’s birth is not arbitrary. I am unsullied by history at birth. One’s history, one’s culture is imposed on one by others. Further, you are using history improperly — as a cudgel to bash people — when the proper use of history is to learn from others’ mistakes. Insofar as you are using history as a cudgel, you are yourself failing to learn from history.

          • First, your only response to my points is to constantly say that I do not understand the definitions of the words I use. This, of course is itself an ad hominem attack. Rather than responding to ideas, you attack the person suggesting them. An ad hominem attack “is an attempt to negate the truth of a claim by pointing out a negative characteristic or belief of the person supporting it.” That is exactly what you are doing: rejecting the author’s very reasonable point (and my arguments in support thereof) by saying he and I argue like racists — or in your language, present arguments that are “a fancy kind of racism” or “argument is based on the same kinds of arguments as race-based arguments” — when in fact race has nothing to do with it. 

            Second, other than your say so, why is it “improper” to use history as a “cudgel”? Or put another way, why is it “improper” to expect you to appreciate that you personally have likely benefited from the unjust actions of your forebears? 

          •  To point out that you are misusing a definition is not an ad hominem attack. It is a valid form of argument. If you reject the questioning of definitions, you are attempting to prevent argument as such.

            I do reject racial arguments, whether they are well-intentioned or explicitly racist, because such an argument I consider invalid. If you consider my ancestry relevant, then you are making a racial argument.

            It is improper to hold me responsible for anything my ancestors did, positively or negatively. Your logic would imprison the sons of murderers. Rejecting such logic was part of our moral evolution. Accepting it is atavistic.

          • We are just going in circles. No one said anything about imprisoning murderers. In fact as noted by Kurt Horner below, the question is not blame but benefit. You are willfully ignoring the race-based benefits you and your ancestors likely received — that really is racism. 

          •  You are saying I am responsible for the actions of members of my race. That is racism.

            Among my ancestors were Cherokees thrown off their land. Explain to me the benefits I received from them?

          •  I find it bizarre that one can be accused of racism because one denies that race should matter.

          • purple_platypus

             Not for denying that it SHOULD matter. For denying that, as a matter of historical fact, it HAS.

          • Buffalo Pete

            I’m not Troy, I don’t even necessarily agree with Troy, but I don’t think this is fair at all. You may disagree with it, but Troy gave a fairly reasonable definition of racism: Holding individuals accountable for the actions of others of their race. If you disagree with that definition, you should just say why.

          • Konrad_Lorenz

            Or, rather than moral retribution, one could take a line of functional reparation.

            When the crimes of the past no longer have any discernible victims, because victimization has been abolished, then it ends.

      •  The son is not responsible for the sins of the father. Will you put me in jail if my father murders someone?

        At the same time,
        historical understanding should guide us in understanding how we got to
        where we are, and what institutional changes we should be working on.
        There is a difference between being social and collectivism. Racism is a
        form of collectivism, not social behavior. It is, in fact, anti-social
        behavior. At the same time, we do have to take into consideration how
        people identify themselves and others. Which only brings us back to
        institutions. We need good institutions.

        I am certainly NOT arguing for justifying current racism. But being racist in response to racism is not the answer. You do not fight evil with evil.

        • You also do not fight evil by pretending it was good. 

          •  Who is pretending it was good? Why not try to argue against what I actually say. Racism is evil, no matter who practices it, or what you want to call it.

        • You are not getting the point. 

          Are you responsible for the actions of your ancestors? No.

          Have you benefited from the actions of your ancestors? Yes.

          This is a serious ethical problem, and having history begin at your birth is highly self-serving. 

          • Exactly. 

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            The fact that I benefit from some act of another person certainly does not imply that I have an obligation to the person bestowing the benefit. Example: my neighbor cuts down his foot high weeds, removes the rusting hulks from his front yard and fixes up his dilapidated house. My property value goes up, but I owe him nothing. 

          • Mark Brady

             Let’s imagine that your neighbor uses slave labor to clear his yard and fix up his house, and that the value of your property goes up.  Would you also agree that you owe the slave nothing?

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Unless I was in some way complicit in the slavery, I am only morally obliged to help the slave recover against the slave-owner. I do not see that I have responsibility to the slave.

          •  This is what I’ve been saying.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Great minds think alike!

          • You do  not owe a legally enforceable debt. But that is not the question. It is also a misleading hypothetical. Try this: your neighbor forces YOU at gunpoint to do all that yardwork and renovation. Does he owe you anything? 

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Gosh, is it really humanly possible to miss the point more obviously than you just have? The issue on the table is NOT the liability of slave-holders, on which we all agree, but the potential  liability of non-holders who indirectly benefitted from the practice. If you can’t see this, I won’t waste anymore time on you. Sorry.

          • j_m_h

            So wouldn’t the more appropriate hypothetical be
            1) A takes value from your neighbor
            2) A then gives you that value
            3) You are made aware of the involuntary transfer

            Do you owe your neighbor anything at this point?

          • j_m_h

            Very true Mark but then nothing has been taken from your neighbor. Not a very good counter argument compared to your usual standard 😉

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            To answer your hypo above, if A steals my neighbor’s Ipad and gives it to me, and I then discover the theft, yes I am obliged to give it back because having paid nothing for it, I have no just claim. But I don’t think this helps any in addressing the issue of rectification for slavery, because slave labor is not an indentifiable physical thing that can be passed down through the generations.

            My ancestors, and I suspect the ancestors of most living Americans, got here after slavery ended. They were never given the “gift” of slave labor. Did they benefit from slavery? I’m not even sure that question makes sense. If slavery had never been introduced into this country, the U.S. and indeed the world would be totally different, like an alternative universe. I don’t think anybody can ever know the answer. This observation would also apply to Northerners who did live here during the slave era. 

            But even if you get past this hurdle, and assume that my ancestors (and other relatively recent immigrants) somehow benefitted, we get back to the point of my original example. The mere fact that you receive an unrequested benefit from someone or something does not create an obligation on your part to pay for it. See also the Cowen essay linked above.

          • j_m_h

            Mark, comment was directed at one aspect of what I see as a failing in the larger discussion. Since you seem to like economic analysis  I’ll put my comments in that context.

            I think Matt’s main point was that Libertarians tend to argue from polar positions and end up in what economist call corner solutions. This occurs when one imposes some type of constraint to the analysis is performed with only straight lines. 

            In such an analytical framework three outcomes exist: two are the conner solutions and one is indeterminacy. That descriptions seems to fit the discussion here. 

            I think what Matt is calling for is that libertarians relax these straight line constraints/frameworks and move towards more of a curved line analysis. With that type of frame work we can actually start understanding the interior outcomes rather than just saying “We cannot know, it’s going to be somewhere on this line.” (Think standard consumer choice theory here with two goods, a budget constraint and straight line indifference curves.)

            I don’t think Matt’s claiming that such a move will solve all problems. I don’t even think Matt’s claiming that examples he used necessarily will fall in the solution space if we change how we address these issues. I think he’s just saying there is a need and real possibility that we can come off these corner solution positions and find some interior solutions if we’re willing to approach the questions a bit differently.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Thanks for the response. I do not quibble with your understanding of Matt’s post or your interpretation of its implications. But Matt proceeds from one moral framework and I another.

            As you may know, I am heavily influenced by Nozick’s ASU. Under that theory of justice, it is wrong to apply force or coercion to moral agents absent some culpability on their part. In my judgment this severely limits the scope for rectification of the injustice of slavery and its aftermath. 

            If this makes me guilty of the dreaded “corner solution,” I guess I will just have to throw myself on the mercy of the court and hope for a light sentence.

        • Konrad_Lorenz

          If you knowingly financially benefit from a murder committed by your father — or anyone else — then you will indeed go to jail as a co-conspirator.

        • Ed

          No, we would not put you in jail if your father murdered someone; however, if your father took away the victim’s money and gave it to you, that money would be returned to the victim’s family…you would not be allowed to keep it.

          I think that’s the point of the article. African-Americans may have positively benefited from their ancestors being brought here (some would argue otherwise) but nonetheless, what was taken from blacks during the slave years cannot be easily compensated. After breeding the healthiest males with the healthiest females, many slave masters sold the offspring for top dollar…sometimes also splitting up the parents as well, not allowing any kind of family life to occur. What price does that deserve? And who should get paid for it? No easy answer.

          Again, I think that’s the point of the article. 

    • Yet, my father has a debt of $100,000 with a debtor.  This debt isn’t erased upon his death; I am responsible for paying it.

      •  But should you be? I would argue not. You didn’t accumulate the debt. Upon your father’s death, whatever the value of his estate is may be used to pay down his debt, but that’s not the same as saying you are responsible for it.

        • That’s a perfectly consistent viewpoint, but the whole point of the original example isn’t whether you are burdened by your parents liabilities, but whether you get to keep your father’s assets.

          If you can get the assets of your father without the liabilities that’s a bit bullshit.

          •  Once your father’s debts are paid, the rest is yours. However, where does it end? What do the Romans/Italians owe whom?

          • Konrad_Lorenz

            Perhaps everyone is owed a share of the collective accumulation of the past 10,000 years of technological development?

          •  They have. That’s why everyone is wealthier than anyone was 10,000 years ago. It’s not a zero sum game.

          • Konrad_Lorenz

            I know this is a real common trope, the idea that the average joe schmoe today lives better than an ancient king, because of the invention of the toilet.

            However, it does not really stand up to analysis.  It depends on a highly misleading definition of wealth, and on a very mistaken view of human nature.

            I suppose it’s intuitive, to look around at all the wealth created over 10,000 years, which certainly did not exist before, and conclude simply that people much be must more wealthy now.

            However, the second you take into account the increase in population, the contention becomes extremely doubtful.  The per-capita loss in most forms of resource consumption is immense; and a lot of those technologies, which seem so magnificent, on analysis appear merely means of ameliorating the reduction in available property.

            I don’t want to get into this in too much depth here, but just to give two simple examples that illustrate the two mistakes I asserted above:

            1) What is a beachfront property worth?  10,000 years ago, you could have one for free.  10,000 years ago, it was not uncommon for a small group of hunter-gatherers to monopolize billions of dollars worth of real estate.  Can you and your tribe ever hope to monopolize even one billion dollars of real estate?

            Or put otherwise, the scarcity of natural resources produced by the population explosion has produced new forms of impoverishment that are actually far more severe than what was possible 10,000 years ago.  The urban homeless certainly are not benefiting from the concrete which prevents them from planting crops, nor from the lack of anywhere free to build a home; but these are the “wealth” they inherit from the centuries of accumulation.

            2) What’s a servant worth?  The idea that having a washing machine is the equal of having servants to wash your clothes is roughly true in a certain, totally utilitarian respect.  (It’s still easier to have someone do your laundry though.)  However, there is definitely real value in being “on the top” of the social system, regardless of the absolute level of wealth produced by the social system.

            The aristocratic classes were famed for their conspicuous consumption, i.e., wealth consumed for the purpose of demonstrating greater wealth than others, wealth converted into status.  It may be that conspicuous consumption constituted the majority of the consumption of the wealthiest kings.  You cannot create a magnificent public display of wealth with your toilet and washing machine.

            A big component of that status, by the way, has to do with the competition over choice of sexual partners.  In general, men compete over access to women.  This is another area where the ancient king has a few advantages over you, even without indoor plumbing.

            It’s only by ignoring the status-conferring value of wealth that one can argue that a factory worker is the equal in wealth to an ancient king, or even a tribal priest in a band of hunter-gatherers.  A tribal priest had real social power and status, even if he still had to poop in the woods.

            A primary aspect of wealth is being able to boss people around; to use up other people’s time as if it were less valuable than yours.  That _in itself_ has value, regardless of what is done with that time.  To show other people you have the  power to have servants (rather than being one) has a value that people will and do pay a lot of money for.

          • Konrad_Lorenz

            Anyway, I meant a property right or a legal right in the collective inheritance rather than a merely potential (non-legal, not enforced or guaranteed by social law) right to enjoy it.

          •  You only proved my contention that people overall are far better off.

            The beachfront property example is just plain silly. As though anyone would prefer to be dirt poor and half starved on a free beach than a well-fed poor person in the middle of the continent.

            Actually, the wealth of the average poor person — let along the average person — has improved as the population has increased.

            I don’t care how kings lived, how many wives they could have, how many people they could enslave, etc. The fact that they had those advantages then and do not and can not now only proves my point that people in general are much better off. And yes, the rich today are better off then the rich hundreds of years ago. Anyone who thinks a king of 1000 years ago wouldn’t trade places with a merely wealthy person today . . . to be honest, the words fail me.

      • j_m_h

        Where is that the case? 

    • Damien S.

      If my father steals your house, then dies and passes it on to me, do you have a right to get your house back from me?

      •  That would be part of your father’s debts, to be repaid upon his death. To you. There is an actual living victim in this case. Further, I would be the immediate recipient of property stolen from you. Those facts matter.

        In the case in question, the argument is that one race is the victim to another race. In other words, the example given to explain why there should be racial guilt and racial victims is deeply flawed.

        America stole land (won it in a war) from Mexico. Mexico is made up of Spaniards who stole land (won it in a war) from Native Americans. Spain was taken from the Moors, who took over Spain hundreds of years previously from the Spanish, who were in part descendents of the Romans who had taken over the Iberian Peninsula, etc. History is full of people who won land from those they conquered. Where do we start?

        Here’s the main problem: we are imposing contemporary morality on the past. I think we all agree that aggressive war in which one conquers territory and takes it over is immoral. That seems to fortunately be the direction of moral evolution. Which is great. But one must not make the mistake of judging past actions of dead people with our morals. We should rather try to understand their morals, try to understand what they were thinking, and learn from it. If we judge history that way, we will not understand that history. We will only ever use it to bash whichever groups descended from those whose actions we disagree with. This is a dangerous path for libertarianism to step upon.

        • “one must not make the mistake of judging past actions of dead people with our morals.”

          I would put your point differently. First, we do judge the past actions of dead people by our moral standards: a wrong act is a wrong act, full stop. Second, in judging the people who performed those actions we must take account of the theory of right action that they held. Someone who commits a wrong act thinking it is a right one, still commits a wrong act; but he is less blameworthy, other things being equal, than one who commits a wrong act believing it is a wrong act. I guess this is what you are getting at.

          •  Certainly there is that, but there is also moral evolution as well. Good luck finding anyone who thought slavery was immoral 2000 years ago — including slaves. Now we are rightly appalled. I do believe all humans share a moral core (a moral instinct), but I also believe that morals evolve (that there is a moral spontaneous order). If one believes in a transcendent morality, one could argue that we are evolving toward it (some would argue we have been evolving away from it), but to my mind, there is little question about moral evolution.

            Let me give an example. All cultures have, throughout all of human history, prohibited murder. Murder is defined at the willful killing of a member of one’s tribe. It is always allowed, in all cultures, to kill anyone not a member of one’s tribe. However, how we define who is in one’s tribe changes. We can expand the idea of tribe to all those who have the same religious beliefs we have, for example. Many of us have extended it to all of humanity. However, there are also rituals one can perform that remove people from our tribes so we can kill them. The rituals around human sacrifice would be one example; a death penalty trial to kill a murderer would be another one. We just disagree about who is in our tribe and whether or not such a ritual truly performs what the ritual is designed to perform.

          • I agree that there has  been moral progress. But that does not change the point that what is wrong is wrong, full stop. Enforced slavery is wrong; it would still be wrong if no one thought it was wrong (though Aristotle, incidentally, does mention some critics of slavery in ancient times, though without naming them).

            I doubt that there is any core of morality shared by all humans. A central component of anyone’s morality consists of social rules that have evolved differently in different societies. But the question of whether or not there is a central core shared by all humans is independent of the question of which moral views are true (if there were a central core, it might be false and need replacing). I suspect we have a lot of progress still to make before we come close to discovering the moral truth. In fact, I doubt that we will ever discover it. But we might be able to discover ways of distinguishing better and worse moral theories, so that we can say when we have made progress.

            Your last paragraph is up the spout. You say:

            “All cultures have, throughout all of human history, prohibited murder.
            Murder is defined at the willful killing of a member of one’s tribe. It
            is always allowed, in all cultures, to kill anyone not a member of one’s

            That is false. As you note, many tribes have permitted killing of their own members in acts of sacrifice. You try to save your thesis from this refutation by simply re-defining who counts as a member of the tribe (not those sacrificed). That is ad hoc. In our culture it is not permissible to kill people of other tribes. You try to save your theses from this refutation by simply redefining ‘tribe’ to include all humanity. Again, that is ad hoc. Also, it won’t do. Many of us think it would be wrong to kill people from another planet (except in self-defence). You will doubtless try to save your thesis from this refutation by re-defining ‘tribe’ to include all rational beings or something. Your contention is either plain false or utterly empty.

          •  Your first paragraph contradicts your second.

            My paragraph you quote is anything but ad hoc. It requires an understanding of both our moral instincts and of what it is that ritual does. If you don’t believe ritual does anything, what I said may make no sense. But even if you don’t believe ritual does anything, if you understand that others do, in fact, think it does something, then what I said makes perfect sense.

            There is much one can understand about human nature if you understand both the expanding tribe theory of morality and the role of ritual for most humans.

          • I guess that what you take to be inconsistent is the claim ‘enforced slavery is wrong’ and the claim ‘I doubt that we will ever discover the moral truth.’ These are actually  consistent with each other. Two propositions are consistent with each other if it is possible that they are true together. My two claims can be true together (if enforced slavery is wrong but we never discover it). What would be inconsistent would be to claim that we had discovered that enforced slavery is wrong and to claim also that we cannot discover moral truth. But I never claimed we had discovered that enforced slavery is wrong. I just stated that it is; and whatever I state is a conjecture that may eventually  be discovered to be false. But I agree that I could have expressed myself better (‘In my fallible opinion, enforced slavery is wrong’).

            I deny that there are any moral principles shared by all humans. No one thinks that killing is wrong, full stop. Everyone hedges the statement with a load of exceptions, and the exceptions vary wildly from culture to culture (or person to person) ; and within the same culture (or person) the exceptions vary over time.

            You claimed that all cultures prohibit killing a member of the tribe and allow killing of non-tribe members. That seems to be patent nonsense. Your way of saving the claim from refutation is to expand or contract the definition of ‘tribe’ in whatever way is needed to save the claim from refutation. That is ad hoc.

            I agree that a mark of moral progress is an expansion of the circle of humans, or beings, we take to be deserving of serious moral consideration. But I think there are limits to that expansion, not just in extent but also in intensity: I think morality will always include, for each person, a circle of people (friends, family, etc) who are morally privileged . Utilitarianism, and also Kantian universalism, miss that point.

          •  I did not say “killing.” I said “murder.” Those are two different things. Murder is always and everywhere wrong. Non-murder killing is not. I defined murder as killing a member of one’s tribe. With that definition, all human groups have always believed murder to be wrong. Where they differ — the only place they differ — is who gets to be in the in-group/tribe.

            Another example would be incest as immoral. All human groups prohibit incest. That derives from the Westermarck effect. Different groups define who one can act incestuously with differently, but they all agree that incest is wrong.

          • I agree that murder is always wrong, but that is purely definitional: if it ain’t wrong, it ain’t murder. But what you said was “Murder is defined at the willful killing of a member of one’s tribe.” That is what is patently false. Human sacrifice often involved killing members of one”s tribe, for example. You try to get around that by defining ‘tribe’  so that anyone who is legitimately killed does not count as a member of the tribe and anyone who is murdered  counts as a member of the tribe. This is just playing around with words in order to save a rotten hypothesis from falsification. It is a standard pseudo-scientific ad hoc manoeuvre.

            Your last paragraph is just as bad. We get “all human groups prohibit incest” and “they all agree that incest is wrong.” That would be significant only if ‘incest’ means the same in connection with each of these groups. But, as you say, “Different groups define who one can act incestuously with differently.” So, actually, they don’t all agree that incest is wrong if we keep the meaning of ‘incest’ unchanged.

            You sound like an anthropologist from a Monty Python sketch!

            I am saying this in a spirit of friendly criticism. It is very easy to fall into ad hoc defences of a favoured theory. It comes naturally to us and we have to guard against it. That was why Popper formulated his ‘methodological rules.’ Unfortunately, few contemporary philosophers read Popper – and it shows. They seem to take pride in their ad hoc manoeuvres. Perhaps the same is true of anthropologists.

          • Konrad_Lorenz

            I don’t think he’s playing quite the definition game you’re accusing him of.  He’s trying to make a factual point.

            The point is that there is usually some out-group that is excluded from protection by the general prohibition on murder.  And he contends that the out-group is always shrinking, because of moral progress.  (I don’t think this is true, but I won’t get into it.)

            In this thread you’re kind of the one who is getting all worked up over how things are phrased rather than what’s being said.

          • Troy is saying that there has been moral progress and that one way in
            which this is shown is in the expanding circle of beings deemedworthy of genuine moral consideration. I don’t disagree.

            But he is also contending that there is a core of morality shared by all humans. That is what I deny. I also point out that his attempts to defend his contention are ad hoc.

          •  You are correct. That is exactly what I am saying. And it is extremely well established that humans have an evolved morality. Unless that is true, it just appeared magically, with no explanation, in strange patterns with no rhyme nor reason.

    • Konrad_Lorenz

      OK, then how about a nice 90% tax on inheritance which is distributed to the bottom 10% income bracket?

      If the children financially benefit from the crimes of the parents, then I can accept that they are not responsible for the crimes.  But they are responsible for their willingness to benefit from the crimes.

  • Bill Woolsey

    I don’t believe that the families that are in the top 20% of income earners today (earning more than $100,000) would be any poorer than they are today if African’s had never been enslaved.

    Slavery was a horrible crime, but I think today’s productivity is largely almost entirely due to improved technology.  I don’t pretend that people in the U.S. have done anything to deserve to live well compared to how people did in 1600, but I don’t believe that the incomes of those currently in the top fifth are high either because the other 80% are low or because people were held as slaves in the past.

    • I think this reflects a deep ignorance of economics in the 19th century. Cotton drove the US economy, and much of the world economy. The cotton crop doubled every decade between 1820 and 1860, and was by far the country’s largest export. It drove the industrial revolution in both the US and England. And all of that was done on the backs of slaves. There were approximately 400,000 slave holders in the South by 1860 and 4 million slaves – together almost 14% of the entire US population. About one third of Southern white families owned slaves at one time or another. 

      I am admittedly not an expert in the subject but I’ll leave you with some additional info from David Blight’s excellent Yale course available on iTunes: How successful was the cotton boom, how important was the cotton boom, what is the relationship between the spread of slavery, the spread of cotton, and power? By 1860 there were approximately 4,000,000 slaves in the United States, the second largest slave society — slave population — in the world. The only one larger was Russian serfdom. Brazil was close.But in 1860 American slaves, as a financial asset, were worth approximately three and a half billion dollars — that’s just as property. Three and a half billion dollars was the net worth, roughly, of slaves in 1860. In today’s dollars that would be approximately seventy-five billion dollars. In 1860 slaves as an asset were worth more than all of America’s manufacturing, all of the railroads, all of the productive capacity of the United States put together. Slaves were the single largest, by far, financial asset of property in the entire American economy. The only thing worth more than the slaves in the American economy of the 1850s was the land itself, and no one can really put a dollar value on all of the land of North America.

      • Mark Brady

        Slave labor meant that the cost of cotton (and thus cotton textiles) was lower than it would otherwise have been.  Do the descendants of nineteenth-century consumers of cotton goods made with slave-picked cotton owe anything to the descendants of American slaves who worked the cotton plantations?  My broader point is that in a competitive economy slave owners are not necessarily enriched through slavery.

        Oh, and one more point.  Although making cotton textiles was the single largest manufacturing
        industry in the UK, it’s an oversimplification to suggest that American cotton
        “drove” the Industrial Revolution either in the UK, the U.S., or
        continental Europe.  For one thing, the Industrial Revolution began in Britain in the 1760s yet American cotton wasn’t seriously exported to Britain until after Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin in 1793.  The Industrial Revolution began in Britain in the 1760s and would have
        taken root there and spread to mainland Europe and indeed the U.S. even without the
        existence of the botanical genus Gossypium, let alone American slave-picked cotton.

        • “My broader point is that in a competitive economy slave owners are not necessarily enriched through slavery.”

          I do not see any support for this point. Please explain.

          • Mark Brady

            Paying less for labor (slave labor being cheaper than free labor) lowers the cost of picking cotton and in a competitive market for raw cotton (many cotton growers) this will be passed onto buyers who pay a lower price for cotton.  Likewise, paying less for cotton lowers the cost of manufacturing cotton textiles and in a competitive market for cotton textiles (many manufacturers) this will be passed onto buyers who pay a lower price for cotton textiles.

          • Assuming no profits made on each bale of cotton, i.e., a perfect market, sure. But in reality, there are profits made and slaveholders (and the entire country) got rich off cotton.

          • Mark Brady

            I did say slave owners are not NECESSARILY enriched.  In fact I’m rather inclined toward the view that few slave owners in the later decades were enriched by the slavery they practiced.  Some were rich by virtue of inherited slaves but that’s a different point.  And as the production of cotton moved west, the owners of land in Texas got rich but again that’s a different point.  The entire country did not get rich off cotton.  The farmers and industrialists who were not involved in the growing and processing of cotton did not, except in so far as they consumed cotton textiles and except in so far as their customers spent less on cotton goods and had more to spend on other goods.  Free agricultural labor (black and white) in the South earned lower wages as they were displaced by slave labor.  And I’m sure you’d agree, the slaves themselves did not benefit (and after all they were part of the country too!).

          • This sounds like a lot of speculation. I am sure there are answers to this: how much of GDP was due to the  cotton crop between, say 1820 and 1860? I think you would find it to be much higher than you expect.  

          • Mark Brady

            I suggest the more relevant question is how much of the growth of GDP was due to the cotton crop, and in particular to the use of slave labor on cotton plantations?

          • Konrad_Lorenz

            Bank robbers are not necessarily enriched by bank robbery.

            After all, they have expenses.

          • Mark Brady

            I’m lost.  Are you joshing or making the point that the returns to bank robbery are likely to be no more and no less than returns to other equally risky activities (quite plausible)?  The point remains that whether or not bank robbers are enriched through their robberies, they are responsible for making restitution to their victims.  Of course, there is the argument that today banking is a state-privileged activity so bank robbery isn’t on a par with robbing grocery stores!

          • Konrad_Lorenz

            Of course the comment was humorous.  But it has precisely the same logical structure as what you said about slavery.

            To follow the tangent here, it hardly matters whether banks’ money was already ill-gotten; that is no justification of bank robbery.

            If the command over the economy granted the banks through their money is already illegitimate, then that same power, transferred to the hands of bank robbers, can hardly be made _more_ legitimate because of its illegitimate source.

            …unless (like the Joker in the latest Batman movie) the bank robbers proceeded simply to burn the money.  In that case they would have a serious case for the legitimacy of their action, for a number of reasons.

            [EDIT: on re-reading, I’m struck by the parallel to the distinction between the stealing of slaves, and the freeing of slaves.]

          • Mark Brady

             Here is a difference between slave owners and bank  robbers.  In so far as slave owners produce commodities for sale in competitive markets, their customers pay lower prices than they would if the producers paid wages t0 free labor.

    • Guinevere Nell

      The important part of what you say, which isn’t addressed much below, is whether the advantages between descendants of each party today are mostly or not mostly due to the enslavement at that time. If technology accounts for most wealth today, can this be traced back? Or on the other hand, if advantages are due to racism, and racism does trace back, then even if technology accounts for most wealth (for both sides, the absolute difference being larger because of the technology than any difference in past times) the advantage that whites have over blacks may still be traceable to slavery.

      •  You’re getting to the real problem with this idea, which is that the complexity of the situation is such that we cannot ever truly understand the processes that led us to the situation we are now in. In other words, there is a pretense of knowledge.

        What we are looking at are statistical averages. As a group whites have more advantages than blacks, and that may be traceable to slavery and subsequent racist laws. But there are many of both groups who are very poor and a few of both groups who are very rich. Do we take from the poor whites to give to the rich blacks? I am certain none of my American ancestors enslaved anyone. More, I have Cherokee on my dad’s mother’s and dad’s father’s side. What does one do in that situation?

        And I still ask: where does it end? Any racial guilt for past actions is going to be cut off at some necessarily arbitrary point. Why shouldn’t American descendents of slaves sue the descendents of the west Africans who captured them and sold them into slavery in the first place? Or the original Ditch traders? Any point along that line is an arbitrarily drawn point.

        • Konrad_Lorenz

          In a way there are two separate issues.

          One issue is: are those who legally inherit nothing in fact owed some part of the collective accumulation of wealth produced by humanity in the past 10,000 years?  (Or at least some of the naturally occurring wealth conquered by humanity in same time?)

          The other issue is: if so, from whom is this debt to be collected?

      • Konrad_Lorenz

        The advantage that whites have over blacks is _obviously_ traceable to slavery; and to the poverty into which the slaves were “freed.”  There is no question.

    • Konrad_Lorenz

      But who is in the top 20%, and who is in the bottom 80%, is not a matter of increased productivity.  The Bush dynasty can indeed be traced back to slavery.

      And of course slavery is but one form of exploitation.  The British Crown continues to benefit from the Norman Conquest.  The Carnegie family continues to benefit from various crimes against steel workers, besides, of course, benefiting from the perfectly legal forms of exploitation available to them.

      Generally speaking, there is no “fair” way to inherit a superior position in life to other people.  Whoever exists today and is held, through the mechanisms of law, in a lower place than anyone else, obviously has no reason to accept that what went on in the past ought to condemn him to lower status.  Only force can cause him to accept this.

  • In law, it is not strict liability, but equity that you are describing. When A steals from B and bequeaths the stolen property to C, B has a claim for something usually styled “unjust enrichment” or the like against C under some circumstances. Of course, in some circumstances, C may have a defense if he acted entirely innocently (i.e., had no notice of A’s claim at the time of his acquisition). 

    • j_m_h

      I think it’s in that last situation that Matt was thinking about the concept of a strict liability to compensate — presumably up to the direct benefit but I suppose that’s also an open question.

      • Strict liability involves payment for injury caused, while equitable doctrines like unjust enrichment or restitution involve disgorging a benefit received or returning property misappropriated. They are similar in that neither necessarily requires fault, but different in that equity requires consideration of other facts that might militate against the disgorgement/return while strict liability does not. (You should read “usually” into every one of the foregoing sentences — we are talking in broad generalities here, and the legal concepts and terminology can vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.)  

  • Peterjaworski

    I’m sympathetic, but tempted to go in the opposite direction: namely, instead of looking deeper and deeper into the past, I’d rather we look closer and closer to the present. What matters for holding responsible appears to be not identity (contrary to a common intuition about the necessity of identity for holding responsible) but ownership of the action. If A steals from B, I’d like to know if A and B are still connected in the right ways to their earlier selves. If not, then we’d be compensating and punishing unjustly.

    This is why I like adverse possession, for example, and why I’m not so exercised about historical injustice.

  • Franco

    In case anyone is interested , here a conference from Walter Block in Argentina, about reparations.



    Before he became famous, Tyler Cowen wrote what I consider to be an excellent analysis of this issue, available here: Have you read it, and if so what do you think?

    To sumarize w/o I hope doing too much violence to his piece, Cowen points out that once you go very far back in time the counterfactuals eat you up. So, A may have screwed B out of $100,000 worth of property, which prevented B’s child C from getting the philosophy degree he wanted from Podunk State. Instead, C went into business, made a whole bunch of money and had a better life than had he got his degree (just an example). Due to this problem, when you get past 1-2 generations the notion of proximate causation begins to loose hold. This is a broader argument than the identity issue pointed out by Javier above. Also, Cowen points out that justice for victims has to be balanced against doing harm to the innocent.

    An additional point I would make is that once the state rectifies past injustice by returning stolen property and (in cases like the Jim Crow South) enacting anti-discrimination laws (at least until equal opportunity is restored), welfare state rectification probably does more harm than good. This is a point not made just by those who benefitted from the past injustice. When future Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan was just an obscure official in the Labor Dept. he wrote a now famous report in 1965 predicting that AFDC would breakdown the black family. According to the man who could “feel your pain” like no other, he was proven right:

    “A long time ago, I concluded that that the current welfare system undermines the basic value of work, responsibility, and family, trapping generation after generation in dependency and hurting the very people it was designed to help.”  [President Clinton upon signing the welfare reform act]

    If anything the harm done to Native Americans by the learned dependency taught by the B.I.A. is even worse, and many Indians think this.

    • I think Native Americans experience more harm today due to (probably genetic) huge rates of alcoholism.

    • Damien S.

       David Frum rips into the welfare argument, arguing the breakdown of the black family is due more to a lack of jobs for black men.


        Wow, David Frum! And his crednetials as an economist are? On the other hand, Thomas Sowell, an actual economist, has made a career arguing that blacks were doing far better relative to whites on a number of dimensions, i.e. unemployment, marriage, births out of wedlock before the advent of the welfare state. Relatively high-paying jobs that don’t require college degrees have been vanishing for both races, but white births out of wedlock are not 70%.

        • Damien S.

           White births out of wedlock are rising:

          And Sowell is well-paid by a think tank to pursue such a career.  He also said Obama was similar to Lenin and Hitler because of the BP oil spill.

          Which gets us back to the post subject, of how not to get libertarians taken seriously.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            First, white births out of wedlock are still less than half of black’s.

            Second, I’m glad you agree that Frum has no economic credentials. Sowell did NOT say that Obama was “similar” to Hitler/Lenin, rather he was making the plausible point that the rule of law (in Hayek’s sense) was being eroded in the BP case, and that once this starts it can lead to dangerous outcomes. Not quite the same thing, no? Why don’t you quote his actual language?

            Finally, is it really your position that anyone who is connected with a think-tank is disqualified from the public debate? This would eliminate almost all the most knowledgable parties on most of the important issues of the day. Sowell is a highly respected economist, and before anyone had really heard of him was an econ professor for six years at U.C.L.A., that hotbed of radical libertarianism. If you don’t take him seriously it is only because of your ideological blinders–it speaks poorly of you, not him.  

          • The question then would be why there is a lack of jobs.  Is that because of the welfare state:  minimum wage laws, etc.?  Is the black family breaking up b/c of perverse incentives from the welfare state?  Or is it related to something else?  Is it racism? Is it the drug war?  Saying they are unemployed b/c of a lack of jobs does not answer the question unless we know why there is a lack of jobs.  

          • Welfare benefits are “means tested”, not “race tested”, so an argument that welfare has hurt the black family PARTICULARLY needs to explain why it would have one effect on blacks and another on whites. I’ve seen no such analysis and have trouble imagining what it might consist of.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            It is not that AFDC hurts blacks and not whites, but that as a group blacks were more heavily dependent on this program than whites. Hence the disproportionate impact.

          • Chemotherapy sucks. It has a number of negative impacts but can also save your life. Black women disproportionately suffer from breast cancer, therefore suffer disproportionately from the effects of chemotherapy.

            So is the real issue the chemo? Or isn’t it really the higher incidence of breast cancer?

          • That was kind of my point.  The real issue is why a certain group suffers more from unemployment or cancer in your example.  Only if we know that, can we know if it’s A or B that is causing or contributing to it.  

          • I think it’s pretty naive (often in a self-serving way) to believe that racism is mostly a thing of the past. Whites-only signs are still in the living memory of many black americans. If you don’t believe me I invite you to read some of the graffiti in any public restroom.

            Consider also how different things would have gone in Sanford, FL, if Trayvon Martin had been a white kid and George Zimmerman a black man.

            Yeah, anyone can “win” in America. But too many start out 50 yds behind the rest and hauling along a big rock.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            I agree that correlation does not prove causation. But AFDC had perverse incentives built into it that discouraged the father from remaining in the household, so I believe there is a presumption that it contributed to the breakdown of the black family. There may be other causes as well.

          • Also, attack Sowell on his arguments, not his connections.  One could just as easily say from has interests or anyone paid by a university that receives money from the state.  

      • Eselpee

        i don’t understand why these are crimes of history. 

        These occur every day everywhere….

        One that quickly comes to mind is Trayvon Martin. Was his life not forfieted as his forefathers were? Did the “white” in him ever gain from those particular sperm donors?

        Another that is unfortunately fading from light is women’s heath issues that was discussed and never solved. 

        Somehow, making the rich richer and the middle and poor class poorer is not going to be that helpful;

    • Konrad_Lorenz

      You can pretend that “past 2 generations” causation stops taking place.  But it’s totally at odds with historical and sociological reality, where hereditary underclasses (such as the feudal serfs) routinely reproduce themselves (in the same status) over centuries; while aristocratic classes do the same, again over centuries.


        So if I read your gibberish correctly–and its not my native language–African-Americans are the “feudal serfs” who “routinely reproduce themselves in the same status over centuries.” This would imply that blacks here could never become billionaire entrepreneurs, CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, successful professionals, film stars and entertainers, Supreme Court justices, four star generals, and certainly not president. And, of course, your gibberish implies that there is no such thing as downward mobility in this society, but this is also clearly false.

        • Mark Brady

          I didn’t understand that Konrad_Lorenz was asserting that African-Americans are “feudal serfs.”  I think his point does have traction if we’re discussing feudal serfs and their lords in medieval Europe and in eastern Europe until the emancipation of those serfs in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (Russia, 1861).

          • Mark Friedman

            Konrad’s commenst was a “response” to my comment citing the Cowen essay, which argues that it is generally not morally permissible to go back far in time in search of rectification. Serfdom ended in 1861. So, how excactly is his comment responsive to my comment or the Cowen essay?

        • Konrad_Lorenz

          You have made a serious logical error.  The existence of inheritance of class does not imply that class is 100% heritable.  It only means that there is a causal chain following the parental lineage.

          Just like how Africans have inherited dark skin from several hundred years ago, they also inherit a relative lack of property from several hundred years ago.  That is just factual reality.  It does not change if you say “there are some light-skinned Africans” or even “there are some white people with African ancestors.”

          Get it?

  • Mark Brady

    A more general point, triggered by my exchange with Tony.  A rights violator (e.g., a slave owner) is not necessarily the same person as those who are enriched through the violation.  The question is “Should the rights violator or his heirs make good to those whose rights he has violated?” and my answer is “Yes but subject to the sort of caveats we’re discussing in this thread.”  I suggest that those who are indirectly enriched through the violation (e.g., a consumer of cheaper cotton textiles made from slave-picked cotton) owe nothing to the victim.  And I suggest that those who are indirectly impoverished through the violation (e.g., growers of more expensive Egyptian cotton) are owed nothing.

    • I agree that there are two group: (1) the rights violator and (2) the beneficiary of the violation. But there is undoubtedly some overlap between the two. Perhaps the strongest claim can be made against the descendants of those who fall in both categories, but that does not necessarily excuse those who fall into just one.  

  • berserkrl

    In addition to the piece you cited, Rothbard also discusses this here and here.

  • Check out this post at The Social Rationalist blog where Rajiv Shah draws on legal theory to provide a reasoned consideration of how we might approach the issue of remedying historical injustices:

  • SimpleMachine88

    You should probably have to trace the theft clearly from one individual to another, and demonstrate this in court beyond a reasonable doubt.  Over time, this becomes difficult.  

    • Damien S.

       Or perhaps someone claiming title to land should be able to trace title back to untainted initial acquisition, before claiming a right to fee simple title free of any social interference.

      • SimpleMachine88

        If property is divvied up a certain way, it should be divvied up that way, unless you can show why it shouldn’t be divvied up that way.  Burke.  Property isn’t theft.

        • But is Land property? More precisely, is property in Land, originally acquired by appropriation, the moral equivalent of property created by human labor (your own or acquired through exchange)?

  • mattc1170

    How to resolve historical claims of injustice in a libertarian manner in the present given a very un-libertarian history is definitely an exercise fraught with peril.  However, I believe there’s a more fundamental problem confronting libertarians when it comes to the rubber of libertarian theory meeting the road of historical fact.  A problem that, as Matt intimated, Nozick appears to have punted on:

    What are we to think of Lockean/Nozickian theories of property rights given that no actual property rights regime in the real world has satisfied the conditions for legitimacy called out by Locke and Nozick, what with all the slavery, conquest, enclosures, etc, ad infinitum?

    • “What are we to think of Lockean/Nozickian theories of property rights given that no actual property rights regime in the real world has satisfied the conditions … ?”

      We’ve got to start somewhere, which I think is the point of Matt’s post. But also, the formation of the U.S., steeped in slavery in 1787, was at the time such an attempt “to resolve historical claims of injustice in a libertarian manner.”

      Maybe someone can explain better, but I think Locke’s “tabula rasa” theory was instrumental in whatever libertarian success the U.S. has had to date. 

      In my view, it’s this theory — i.e., that we’re all basically “written upon” by others starting at birth (especially by our parents/caregivers/culture) — that makes libertarian change possible.  

      And from this theory springs ideas like: we’re all born free and equal, theories of original acquisition of property, denial of divine right of kings, denial of “corruption of blood” and “sins of the fathers” concepts, “usufructory” property systems, etc.

      • Damien S.

         The US then went on to steal land from Indians and Mexico, repeatedly breaking its own treaties, as well as acquiring Hawaii under dubious circumstances…

        • Arguing from my understanding of Locke’s “tabula rasa” theory, I might reply that, where you were born with a “clean slate” and did not directly experience the injustices you mentioned, for one reason or another you are voluntarily holding on to those thoughts of injustice, they serve some purpose that is important to you, and furthermore, you have personal power to change those thoughts (for better or worse).

          Admittedly, the effects of directly experiencing injustice can be much harder to shake off, but I would say the same for them, i.e., that we have personal power to “overwrite” the negative “tracks” that were laid down in our brains by direct negative experiences of injustice.

        • SimpleMachine88

           But those were foreign powers.  The right to property is only protected/respected by your own state/tribe.  It is a civil right, not a natural right IMHO.

          Nor is their any reason to respect treaties with foreign powers save creating the pretense of reliability.  All agreements between sovereign states are understood to work according to the rules of real politik, and are disregarded whenever it is expedient.  Sovereigns are, by definition, not subjects.  It’s a state of warre out there.

          • j_m_h

            The argument doesn’t stop with Sttates and governments but applies to each and everyone of us.

          • SimpleMachine88

            except we left the state of warre by forming a leviathan.  there is a sovereign power over individuals, unlike states.  otherwise, the conclusion is anarchism. 

            also, I belong to a state that was formed by at least a rough approximation of a Rawlesian constitutional process, so I’m less inclined to decry it’s protection of property as tyranny. even if I did though, I’d still be afraid of it.  the argument of legitimacy through brute force still applies, since I could be considered properly subjugated.

      • Konrad_Lorenz

        …but ultimately the whole point is to justify some inequality of inheritance…  I mean you are trying to get to a system where all inequalities which are inherited are justified by some theory.  That theory _has_ to accept inequality at birth, sins of the father, some basis of right to replace divinity (if not divine right itself), etc..

        _Actually_ denying the “sins of the father” concept makes it impossible to say that there are people living today who have no right to any of nature’s resources — but the absence of that right is exactly what it is necessary to prove, to justify any system of property inheritance at all.

        So what it amounts to is deciding _which_ sins of the father are truly sinful, and which sins are forgiven.

        [It’s important to remember that modern property systems don’t much change the structure of inheritance as it existed under monarchy (making it only a bit more flexible), just the bundle of rights associated with property.]

        • The problem seems to be how to justify fair forms of inheritance without also endorsing aristocratic privilege … and allowing the “sins” (and debts) of the fathers from adversely affecting the living.

          I think law professor Ben Barros provides a balanced view of the problem in his 2006 blog topic “Thomas Jefferson’s Theory of Property:”

          He starts the blog by stating that Jefferson is “a notoriously difficult thinker to pin down” on the subject of property transfers at death, but I think accurately concludes that “Jefferson’s ire in ‘Rights of Usufruct’ isn’t inheritance per se,” but that he’s “hostile to intergenerational debt and some forms of hereditary ownership that perpetuated the concentration of wealth.”

          So, Jefferson would likely have lots to say about the power that private banks have amassed today, the holding of land by corporations and other legal fictions (that have eternal legal life), and products such as the 30 year mortgage.  

          And this is not to mention that banks, by dominating the money-creation process, have denied working people the right to be original acquirers of property through their labor, i.e., denied workers the right to be “self-owners” who would then be more capable of maintaining other ownership and usufructory rights.

  • Mark Brady

    I remember that Walter Williams critiqued the demand for reparations from Whites to Blacks on the grounds that most of today’s African-Americans are better off as a result of their ancestors being enslaved and brought to the United States.  That they are better off is quite likely, at least as long as West Africa is mired in poverty (fortunately things are changing), but it seems to confuse enrichment / impoverishment with the identities of rights violators and their victims.  If the heirs of the rights violators and the heirs of the victims can both be identified, I suggest a case for rectification / restitution exists subject, of course, to certain caveats that we are exploring here.  In the case of land, we have records of title-deeds going back generations so it would be possible to restore at least some of the land tilled by slaves to their descendants, and in that case the current owners could be compensated by the heirs of the plantation owners.  Realistically, it’s more about land than about the labor of slaves that was appropriated by slave owners.  (I realize that such a proposal raises a good many questions that have to be addressed.)  On the other hand, I suggest there is no case for transferring wealth from European-Americans as a group (many of whose ancestors arrived since 1865) to African-Americans as a group (some of whose ancestors arrived since 1865).

    • Damien S.

       The claim of African-Americans being better off here than in Africa ignores that African societies were directly damaged by the slave trade as well.  (And later by colonialism, though I think the USA had less of a hand in that.)  Slavery and the slave trade are culpable on both sides of the Atlantic.

      And yes, African societies had slavery before Europeans showed up.  They were still damaged by an unprecedented magnitude of slave trade, fueled by European goods.

      • And European and American subsidies today.  

      • j_m_h

        But you’d have to then separate out the effects of international slave trade from the purely domestic version that existed and still do.

  • CFV

    I read the Tyler Cowen’s text recommended by Mark D. Friedman. I’d have some things say about it (well, in fact, I’ve a work in progress in which I ponder some such issues): for me, one way to circumvent the counterfactual and the non-identity problems in relation to land is simple and straightforward: land nationalization. But I understand is not a normative conclusion easy to digest for right-wing libertarians.

    There is also an interesting article by A. John Simmons “Historical Rights and Fair Shares”, included in  Justification and Legitimacy (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001). 

  • 3cantuna

    “Second, an over-reliance on so-called “methodological individualism” sometimes leads libertarians to be unnecessarily obtuse in thinking about historical injustice. “Only individuals act,” we sometimes like to say. Or even “there are no groups, only individuals.” But there are groups, and they matter…”

    It is just the opposite that is true. The inability of collectivists to recognize that individuals are the prime movers of history– that it is an individual’s ideas, valuations and judgments, that give meaning to group memberships–  leads easily to effecting falsified history and statist remedies.  It was Mises, the one whom dare not be named, that opposed colonialism, race pride and, unlike the socialists posing as BHLs on this blog, the totalitarian institution of public schooling.

    That only individuals act is not something that libertarians merely like to say, if they are worth the moniker; it is a logical reality.

  • 3cantuna

    Your a fascist?

  • 3cantuna

    comment misplaced

  • berserkrl

    Some of my own comments on Nozick’s principle of rectification:


      Hi Roderick,
      I have a couple of quick questions raised by this essay. All enterprises that have been successful on a large scale began life as 1-2 person start-ups. All faced heavily entrenched competitors that benefitted from government subsidies and privileges. Yet, an astonishing number of firms have gone from start-up to world-beater in less than a decade (Facebook, Google, Linked-in, etc.). So, does this suggest to you that these subsidies and privileges are not that effective in blocking competititon?

      Also, these start-ups could have been organized as worker co-ops, or for that matter in any way desired by the founders. Yet to my knowledge not a single enterprise that has been successful on a national scale has been organized other than as a traditional, top-down corporation. Why do you think this is? Thanks. 

  • Cal

    §452 Possession and justice. When socialists prove that the distribution of wealth in present-day society is the consequence of countless injustices and atrocities, rejecting in summa the obligation towards anything so unjustly established, they are seeing one particular thing only. The whole past of the old culture is built on violence, slavery, deception, error; but we, the heirs of all these conditions, indeed the convergence of that whole past, cannot decree ourselves away, and cannot want to remove one particular part. The unjust frame of mind lies in the souls of the “have-nots,” too; they are no better than the “haves,” and have no special moral privilege, for at some point their forefathers were “haves,” too. We do not need forcible new distributions of property, but rather gradual transformations of attitude; justice must become greater in everyone, and the violent instinct weaker.–Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human (1878)

  • Guinevere Nell

    Great post!
    I would add that this bit:
    “Put these two kinds of identity together and it’s easy enough to see that injustices against an individual in one generation can negatively affect other individuals in later generations. And that systematic injustices against certain groups of individuals can have systematic effects on other members of those groups in later generations.”
    reminds me quite a bit of the position taken by Ann Cudd in your video debate with her (

  • Roger Parker

    I disagree with Matt’s position on a number of ways.

    First, is that he is focusing on just the harm side of history.  The point is that with cultural evolution, we owe massive debts to our ancestors. Not only our existence, but every cultural solution in our lives is either provided to us by those that came before us or was built upon these earlier discoveries, inventions and ideas.  We are all immeasurable beneficiaries of the cultural progress of our ancestors.  The only exception would be a naked infant abandoned on the savanna.  Matt’s post implies that we should determine who got above or below average benefits, focusing on the very narrow field of recent historic exploitation. 

    Second, the complexities of the situation make it totally subjective and unquantifiable. We have wildly different views of justice, of values, of time frames, of needs, of context, and these are muddied with cross breeding. Every one of us has a personal yet opaque ledger of pluses and minus that we could spend a lifetime investigating.  

    Third, it violates Rawl’s suggestion that we determine justice behind the veil.  The players, though not knowing their position perfectly (as above) can make guesses and thus will try to influence the rules of the game to their benefit.  All you will get is a degeneration in the game from working within the game to arguing over the rules of the game itself.  You will shift the game to what I call Rule Wrestling. 

    This leads to the fourth and most important point, which is that this is one of those games that is better not played. It is a zero sum game with negative externalities. Even the “winners” will resent not winning more. 

    Social progress requires us to play positive sum games that constructively create value.  Implicit in this is that we abandon past feuds and grievances and enter in a world of non coercive, voluntary, win win interactions. 

    • SimpleMachine88

       ok, but how do we get the other person to play positive sum games if they realize it’s more profitable to simply resort to coercion.  it takes two to tango here.  doesn’t social progress also require coercion to force people to choose to play the zero-sum game, as well as constant coercion to protect the gains made from voluntary win-win interactions.

  • Ken S

    “Put these two kinds of identity together and it’s easy enough to see that injustices against an individual in one generation can negatively affect other individuals in later generations. And that systematic injustices against certain groups of individuals can have systematic effects on other members of those groups in later generations.”

    I am with you about some people possibly misunderstanding/ignoring how others think about these issues. Yes, many individuals form groups and care about them. But that still has nothing to do with the *way we should find out how the world actually is*. We do have a lot of descriptive social science involving the process of formation of identity and groups…

    Overall in this paragraph you lose me, for two reasons. First, it is not quite a criticism of methodological individualism because the people you are trying to rebut are not correctly applying it in the first place. They are ignoring certain intentional states that individuals do possess. It doesn’t seem like there is a good reason to damage an otherwise fine idea based on this misunderstanding, at least not without simultaneously replacing the original, correct, insight with new terminology.

    Next, I do not find it ‘easy to see’ anything involving the micro to macro process you are trying to describe here, at least I can’t imagine anything that wouldn’t be considered vague or excessively anecdotal. It *is* easy to see how individuals would (foolishly?) act on such vague and anecdotal information. Answering this in a rigorous way would run right into Hayek’s ‘economic calculation’ problem, and this issue seems to be implicit in some of the responses here. I’m not advocating absolute rigor as a standard of action here, but at least let’s recognize the difficulties involved and not call these things easy.

  • TonyFressola1950

    Here’s my take on the issue of legitimacy of title:  The current holder has a presumptive or prima facie claim based not on ancient history but on the fact of current possession/use — or in more complex cases, on specific contractual relationships with those in possession or using (i.e., renters, employees, etc.)  That prima facie claim is always open to challenge by anyone who is in a position to assert that he or she has a superior claim.  Note though that what the challenger needs to be in a position to demonstrate is not just that the weakness of the current holder’s claim, but also the strength of his or her own claim.

    George can easily demonstrate that his claim to the IPad trumps Adam’s–since the transgression is so recent and facts so straightforward.  Where transgressions are ancient, the facts are likely to be far more complex and less readily ascertainable — so that challenges to presumptive titles will likely be more difficult to sustain. 

    • I doubt anyone would disagree that the difficulty in quantifying or apportioning benefits requires a result like the one you are suggesting. But let’s be honest and admit that we are abandoning justice for convenience or at least for practicality. 

      • TonyFressola1950

        I don’t see this as abandoning justice at all.  It aims, rather, at achieving a just result to the extent we can know it.  The argument is that where no prior right can be asserted, the current holder’s use creates a right (“mixing labor” etc.).  If another person can demonstrate that he or she has a prior right, that prior right will trump any claim of the current holder. 

        • And if another person has a prior right but cannot prove it (because records have been destroyed or were never kept, because too much time has passed, because all witnesses are dead), then they do not get their land. This is what I mean by favoring convenience over justice. 

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Perhaps the reason that “he cannot prove it” is that the asserted right does not exist, or do you somehow deny the very possibility of bogus claims?

  • Cautious Fan

    I want to try out a thought.  Please don’t flame against it too much, it’s just something I’ve thought about and wanted to throw out on the interwebs.

    I’m not jewish, but when I look at their history, they’ve been persecuted like no other group.   I don’t think that’s debated, is it?  On the other hand, the (is it ethnic?) group today is arguable one of the most successful in the world, almost certainly if you judge by the average per capita income of the ashkenazi jews.  So, when people argue, like I see above, that actions commited 200 years ago are responsible for people’s plight today, I guess I’m suspicious.  Every group has had injustices committed against it.  It seems those which want to focus on victimhood aren’t doing themselves any favors, even if what they’re saying is perfectly correct.   Even if they got want they wanted, something which they may well deserve, it can actually make everyone worse off, the received included.  South Africa is a recent case in point.  

    So here’s my point.  Yes injustices have been committed, by everyone.  But once it’s “sufficiently” in the past (through rule of law), it’s best to just move on.  Make sure the present system is just, punish individual wrongdoers.  Carrying a grudge mostly harms the bearer.   Is this a weird argument to make? 

  • Eselpee

    i don’t understand why these property issues are crimes of history. 

    These occur every day everywhere….

    One that quickly comes to mind is Trayvon Martin. Was his life not forfieted as his forefathers were? Did the “white” in him ever gain from those particular pale sperm donors?

    Another series of current events that is unfortunately fading from light is women’s heath issues that was discussed and never resolved.  If you all libertarians are against national health care programs, how do libertarians expect the working poor (don’t qualify for medicad and can’t afford an individual plan) access to a commodity that only  benefit millionaires?

    My dear friend, an SLPA, fell down stairs last weekend and broke her leg in three places. She had no access to insurace so she gets subappropriate care and a bill of in the $10s of thousands. Her husband is a student and they were taking tuns going up the educational ladder but they have been whiped off the playing field now! Debt grows the whole time you’re trying to pay it down. 

    Every day decent middle-class people of all cultures are victimized by money becoming more and more in the hands of few and fewer. They control our gas prices and cost of groceries while limiting our ability to advocate through collective bargaining

    The libertarian survival-of-the-fitist philosophy means that so many will die awful death following terrible lives, which is more enviable than the lives of those puffed up avaristic tightwads who aquired far more than they needed at other’s expense. 

  • What strikes me about this conversation is the degree of focus being placed on the strength of the claims of the “have-nots” against the property claims of the current “haves”. I agree with the critics of slave reparations that it is an unworkable idea, but that’s mostly because it’s a great idea but about 150 years too late. Sadly, “40 acres and a mule” never actually came to pass, assuming that would have been anything like just compensation in the first place. (What worked out far better for some was participation in the homesteading of the West as occurred in the (nearby to my hometown) town of Nicodemus in western Kansas.) Slave reparations at this point are  just too easy a target to shoot down.

    But I digress. The real issue here isn’t so much the strength or weakness of the claims of the “have-nots” as it is the strength or weakness of the claims of the “haves”. Our current pattern of property holdings is the end result of a long process shot through with theft, privilege, and discrimination, both public and private.  It reminds me of the baseball record books with an asterisk beside the entries for most home runs in a season following the revelations of steroid use.

    Given that so much of contemporary libertarian political theory hangs on strong property rights, one would think this reality would be more a problem for libertarian theory than you seem willing to acknowledge. If you want to claim that taxation is theft, an absolute moral wrong, doesn’t it behoove you to demonstrate the strength of your moral claim to the property in the first place?

    At the same time, the vast majority of current property holders are indeed “innocent” in the sense that the most proximal property acquisitions were through some legitimate means of transfer. This would seem to militate in favor of “starting now!” But that ignores the reality that doing so tacitly legitimizes the theft of the past.

    If the sins of the father cannot legitimately be passed on to the son, how then can the virtue be inherited? And isn’t the inheritance of a relatively poorer starting position a form of punishment as well?

  • Stein

    Tracing stolen goods beyond the thief’s possession
    is tracing possessors who could, when the goods bought in innocence are taken
    from them, just as well demand rectification from the thief as the original
    victim – the loss due to the crime committed is as real to them as to him. When
    the possibility of returning the particular stolen goods, or their equivalent
    value, to any sort of victim alive no longer exists, then we’re into inherited
    guilt, pure collectivistic nonsense.


    We living in Europe
    have been treated to the interesting spectacle of the ancestors of people who
    once fled from the communist states, now after the liberation claiming possession
    of grandparent’s land and buildings. Something which makes for much sardonic fun
    if you dislike formal jurisprudence, as we watch well to do nobles try to eject
    a scrabble of very poor peasants living as second and third generation in huts
    in what was once the castle garden, plus removing things like the town’s new electricity
    plant from their ancestor’s land. Rectification of injustice my ass: the guilty
    ones who should pay for new land and houses for the current occupants are Lenin
    and company, and they’re mostly dead, demented or dirt poor – which means that
    no sensible form of justice is obtainable.

  • ” If A steals from B and bequeaths the stolen property to C, B clearly
    has a right against C, even if C has acted entirely innocently.
    Sometimes, in other words, the point isn’t that we have acted wrongly. It is that we have benefited from injustice in a way that we were not entitled to benefit. Receipt of such benefits could be understood as a kind of strict liability offense.”

    I don’t see what this has to do with strict liability or with C’s “benefiting” improperly. Rather, C is in possession of B’s property, so B is entitled to get it back. Property rights is what is behind this. Not unjust receipt of “benefits” or strict liability.

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  • Sergio Méndez

    Great post Matt. I will say this that methodological individualism is not the problem per
    se, but rather, the assumptions of some who use it or the way they interpret
    it. There are two of those assumptions that I find problematic: 1. the idea of
    imagining society in atomistic terms, meaning society is composed by just the
    sum of individuals, ignoring the relations that those individuals have among
    themselves (that even give them their individuality!) and 2. The idea of
    thinking human action only in terms of some economic based logic (that
    individuals only act to maximize their benefits,), ignoring other and more
    complicated motivations (political, cultural etc…). I think when you take out
    those two; it is possible to reconcile methodological individualism with more holistic
    -global- approaches to history such as Marxism or French Annales School, to
    name two.

  • Guest

    I say, yes, there are groups, but they don’t act, only individuals act.

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  • Mary Barker

    Revised theater involving Adam and George:

    vacation time. Adam (smart son) you got good grades and so get to come
    with us to Disneyland. George (intellectually challenged son) you
    didn’t get good grades. You have to stay home and take care of the

    But Dad, I worked
    hard – even harder than Adam. And though I didn’t get good grades, I
    was helpful around the house and took care of the elderly neighbor’s
    yard. He may have mastered Latin declension, but I’m not sure that
    helps anyone. The neighbors don’t speak Latin.

    work and social utility don’t count. Only grades do. We’ve devised a
    system to measure who is worthy and who isn’t and dog gone it, we’re
    sticking to it.

    But dad, I’m your son. And I’ve done my best. And what I’ve done matters to people.

    being sentimental. I told you that hard work and social utility have
    nothing to do with anything. All that matters is the scale we’ve
    created to decide who is worthy of stuff. And if hard work and social
    utility don’t count, what makes you think that love will? Really, son,
    you’re an embarrassment; a downright moocher; and now you’re in time
    out. Go to your room.

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