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!”
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?