Matt Zwolinski recently posted a piece probing the question of whether a unconditional basic income might be a good idea from a broadly libertarian or at least classical liberal perspective.

One of his arguments was based on the fact of historical injustice. Suppose a purely historical theory of justice in holdings were true: any distribution of wealth is just provided property holdings arose in a just way. The problem is that we know there was historical injustice. E.g., corporation that is successful today might have engaged in rent seeking sixty years ago. Perhaps it wouldn’t exist at all today if it hadn’t engaged in that rent seeking in the past, and thus perhaps anyone who owns stock in that business benefits from that past injustice. Or, e.g., while I purchased my plot of land from someone who purchased it from someone else, if we go back in time far enough, we’ll see a series of injust violent skirmishes over who controls that land. Or, e.g., Brown University was founded and funded in part by people who grew rich off the slave trade, and some of its buildings were built by slaves. Etc. Etc. Almost any item you own has a corrupt past.

Nozick says that we will need principles of rectification to tell us how to deal with past injustice, but he doesn’t say much about what those principles might be. (That’s not an oversight on his part, because Nozick didn’t need to give us a detailed theory of justice in order to make his point in ASU.) However, Nozick suggests that it’s possible that rectification might require redistribution, or a persistent welfare state, or whatnot.

KCL political theorist and my former colleague Adam Tebble has a neat paper here using Hayek to try to undermine Nozick’s claims here. 

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  • http://www.stationarywaves.com/ Ryan Long

    “Nozick says that we will need principles of rectification to tell us how to deal with past injustice…”

    For my part, that’s the point I reject. First of all, there’s a fine line between rectification and eye-for-an-eye. Second of all, today’s rectification may be deemed tomorrow’s historical injustice, creating further reason for rectification in the future, in a vicious cycle. Third of all, if this goes on long enough, then it just becomes eye-for-an-eye, anyway.

    Whenever life was unfair to me when I was growing up, my mother would say to me, “Tough cookies!” It was funny and made me feel better. Maybe real rectification means helping people – you know, psychologically, not economically – feel better about the poor hand they’ve been dealt. I know it’s not perfect, but at least it doesn’t institutionalize retribution.

    My broader point is this: We shouldn’t use politics to solve personal problems. We should address them personally.

    • Les Kyle Nearhood

      Agreed. Rectification is opening a can of worms. Perhaps we need something like a One Century rule. In one hundred years a single person might conceivably still be alive who suffered an injustice, but past that you are talking about many generations removed, of both the givers and the takers. Therefore it makes sense to draw an arbitrary line and say anything that happened more than a century ago is history, and cannot be used for damages.

      • TracyW

        I think the statute of limitations in most places for most things is something like 20 years. The USA is unusual in not having a statute of limitations for land theft.

    • TracyW

      This reads to me a bit like a call for abolishing tort law. Was that your intention?

      • http://www.stationarywaves.com/ Ryan Long

        Not at all. I’m not talking about tort law, I’m talking about the welfare state.

  • Anonymous

    Shouldn’t the title be “in light of _past_ injustice”?

  • adrianratnapala


    Up rode the squatter, mounted on his thoroughbred.
    Down came the troopers, one, two, and three.
    “Whose is that jumbuck you’ve got in your tucker bag?
    You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me.”

    • Les Kyle Nearhood

      I think every nation should have an anthem which is totally incomprehensible to foreigners.

      • adrianratnapala

        “Jumbuck” would be incomprehensible even to Australians were it not for the poem. And “walzing-Matilda” is incomprehensible even so. Let’s translate in a way that emphasize the political point:

        Up rode the squatter, mounted on his thoroughbred. [Up rode the aristocrat who illegally occupies state-owned else’s land (which was itself plundered from Aborigines), on his expensive horse.]

        Down came the troopers, one, two, and three. [The aristocrat is backed up by agents of the very state which nominally owns the land.]

        “Whose is that jumbuck you’ve got in your tucker bag? [The aristocrat implicitly (and correctly) claims ownership of a sheep raised on that land and stolen by our vagrant, thieving hero]

        You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me.
        [The squatter threatens severe punishment under the law for violating his property rights.]

  • alohasteve

    Great site – glad I found it! Link Exchange?

    Common Cents

    http://www.commoncts.blogspot.com

  • brandonberg

    E.g., corporation that is successful today might have engaged in rent seeking sixty years ago.

    All well and good, but what does this have to do with current shareholders? Rent-seeking sixty years ago would have benefited the shareholders at the time, but today’s shareholders bought their stock at prices which already factored in the benefits from past rent-seeking, including benefits which are expected to be realized in the future.

    Or, e.g., while I purchased my plot of land from someone who purchased it from someone else, if we go back in time far enough, we’ll see a series of injust violent skirmishes over who controls that land.

    Same basic principle—if you bought the land at market prices, you didn’t benefit from those unjust violent skirmishes, nor did you have any sort of unfair advantage; anyone could have bought that land at the same price you did.

    • adrianratnapala

      E.g., corporation that is successful today might have engaged in rent seeking sixty years ago.

      All well and good, but what does this have to do with current shareholders?

      But that strengthens the case for redistribution under this (Nozickian!) argument. It is impossible to unscramble the egg of who benefited from past evils, so we must fall back on a heuristic like redistribution. BTW: if it were known that corporations/land were to be fined for this sort of thing, then that too would be reflected in the price.

    • sam

      “[If] you bought the land at market prices, you didn’t benefit from those unjust violent skirmishes…”

      Suppose those paintings your grandfather acquired “at market prices,” and bequeathed to you, were in fact looted by the Nazis from their original owners. In what sense did he not benefit from those acts of violence? And in what sense have you not benefited?

      • TracyW

        In the sense that his granddad could have equally as well bought different paintings at market prices from someone who was their legitimate owner.

        • sam

          Really, now. Do you want to argue that because he could have done other than he did, he is not benefiting from what he in fact did?

          Or have I misunderstood what you’re getting at? If so, let me rephrase the last of the hypothetical: “Did he not benefit from those acts of violence? And are you not benefiting now?”

          • TracyW

            I have no idea what your first paragraph is trying to get at. It sounds very metaphysical.

            On your second paragraph, your rephrasing changes the meaning of what you originally asked. Before you were asking for a sense in which something was not so. So, let me give you another example: it is quite plausible that were it not for the large troop movements in NZ occasioned by WWII my grandparents would have all married different people. Would you thereby say that my grandparents, at least the ones who had a happy marriage, are the beneficiaries of Nazi atrocities?

        • good_in_theory

          Why do you insist on insulating someone from the risk of (potentially) dealing in stolen goods? Aren’t they perfectly capable of insuring themselves against such risk on their own, without the state granting them the privilege of ignoring basic principles of rectification?

          • TracyW

            Good_in_theory – huh? What does your comment have to do with the price of fish? The question was in what sense can something be so, and I gave a sense.

  • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

    Since this essay is gated, couldn’t you at least provide a summary of his argument? Otherwise, what is the point.

  • Omar

    I’m sympathetic, but I have a few possible objections. We use courts for rectification when the alleged injustice is recent. How are people guaranteed to be deemed innocent unless proven guilty in this context? It seems like a fair proposal, but it’s open to arbitrariness and imprecision. With a BIG, many injustices will remain as people who deserve compensation don’t receive enough; meanwhile, some people will end up paying more than they should. If rectification is our concern, then we’d like to be as accurate as possible.
    In that case, someone needs to be the judge of this injustice. Tariffs are often justified using arguments which sound a lot like the one Nozick made (“unfair competition from sweatshops”). Nothing tells us the principle of justice used to determine who is owed what is the one Matt is thinking of, and public choice tells us it is probably not going to be that one. So the choice of a policy which achieves rectification displays a trade-off between inaccuracy and corruption. This isn’t bad in and of itself (some minarchists tolerate states in order to minimize the initiation of force), but it requires some comparative analysis regarding which point on that scale is most effective from the point of view of justice. That is not a characteristic displayed by Hayek’s “if things go wholly wrong” reasoning, I think.
    In addition, is it fair to punish people who benefit from crimes committed by others in the name of correcting injustice? If you want to be really narrow about this, the point is to not to correct for the violation of property rights, but for effects in welfare, since we’re discussing violations of rights which occurred too long ago for direct victims to be compensated. If this is fair–if people deserve compensation for their loss in welfare rather than their loss of property–then surely people who earned more than they would have due if others hadn’t committed crimes should be taxed for something they’re not responsible for.

    • TracyW

      And building on your loss in welfare point, bear in mind that many crimes and atrocities arguably are negative sum – we are all likely worse off in the long run because capital was destroyed in the process of transferring some to the aggressors.

      • Omar

        Good point!

  • TracyW

    ” E.g., corporation that is successful today might have engaged in rent seeking sixty years ago.Perhaps it wouldn’t exist at all today if it hadn’t engaged in that rent seeking in the past, and thus perhaps anyone who owns stock in that business benefits from that past injustice. ”

    Not necessarily – Adam Smith makes a fairly convincing argument that the East India Company of his time not only was bad for Indians and bad for Brits but also had a negative return on capital.

  • http://www.benbachrach.com/ BenBachrach

    Since a happy life is a journey not a destination, rectification for past injustices should be ignored. The initial condition for each person should be considered when that person declares emancipation from his parents. Any injustice that is present at that point is due to his parents conceiving and raising the person in an unjust world. Each of us should just consider the world at the transition from dependence on our parents as our initial condition, and enjoy developing the best path to seek happiness from there. Otherwise we are filled with envy, and in constant turmoil trying to seek retribution for past injustices.

  • Theresa Klein

    Obviously, the problem is that the only just way to rectify the past injustice is to redistribute purely from the beneficiaries of the injustice.
    But the usual proposal is to tax everyone, even people who had nothing to do with it. Even victims of past injustice.
    Imagine being a rare successful Roma college graduate who is desparately struggling to save enough money to make a down payment on a home. And then getting slapped with a 30% tax rate ostensibly to rectify the injustices infliected upon the Roma people. None of which goes to you, because it’s being given to your high-school dropout neighbors to help them pay rent.

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