Mises Wire

Reparations vs. Property Rights

Socialists throughout the western world are celebrating the decision in South Africa to confiscate land from white citizens to redistribute to the black population. Flowing from the logic of collective, race-based guilt, the justification is that this land redistribution is the correction of historical injustices that took place under apartheid.

Conservative reasoning, of course, takes the opposite stance, morally rejecting any notion of collective guilt. And for anybody with some understanding of unintended economic consequences, you don’t have to adopt a moral position at all to recognize the pending disaster that this policy will bring about. For the libertarian, this all holds, but South Africa’s policy might serve as a good opportunity to remember the important differences between the libertarian view on reparations and the conservative view, despite their arriving at the same general policy position.

The simple conservative reasoning against reparations is, understandably, that if my ancestors owned slaves (to use America’s more common justification for reparation policies), I am not guilty of their sins. Morally speaking, this seems unobjectionable.

But libertarian ethics are not based on abstract moral claims; they’re based on concretely identifiable property rights. When a violation of a person’s property rights takes place, restitution is the logical means of compensating the victim, and moral guilt need not be a factor at all. For instance, if my neighbor lives at the top of a hill and I live at the base, and he forgets to put his car in park, allowing it to roll backwards and destroy my fence, he would not be guilty of any moral failing. But would I not still be entitled to claim restitution? Property-based libertarian ethics would unequivocally answer in my favor.

In a similar vein, if I inherit property that is the product of slave labor, libertarian property theory suggests that I do not have an ethical claim to that property. Instead, the descendants of the slave who produced it have a genuine libertarian justification to seek restitution from me, the guiltless descendent, for the property that rightly belonged to their ancestors. Taking this logic a step further, it need not even be the actual item produced by slave labor – there only needs to have been some wealth unjustly acquired through slave labor for there to be a legitimate libertarian claim for the descendants of slaves to demand restitution from the descendants of their ancestor’s owners.

None other than Walter Block has made the clear case for reparations in instances such as I have described. In a 2002 paper , Dr. Block writes:

Justified reparations are nothing more and nothing less than the forced return of stolen property - even after a significant amount of time has passed. For example, if my grandfather stole a ring from your grandfather, and then bequeathed it to me through the intermediation of my father, then I am, presently, the illegitimate owner of that piece of jewelry. To take the position that reparations are always and forever unjustified is to give an imprimatur to theft, provided a sufficient time period has elapsed. In the just society, your father would have inherited the ring from his own parent, and then given it to you. It is thus not a violation of property rights, but a logical implication of them, to force me to give over this ill-gotten gain to you.

Tying his hypothetical to the issue of slavery, Dr. Block writes further:

Precisely the same analysis applies to slavery. Owning a slave is a crime under libertarian law. . . . Those people who owned slaves in the pre-civil war U.S. were guilty of the crime of kidnaping, even though such practices were legal at the time. A part of the value of their plantations was based on the forced labor of blacks. Were justice fully done in 1865, these people would have been incarcerated, and that part of the value of their holdings attributable to slave labor would have been turned over to the ex-slaves. Instead, these slave masters kept their freedom, and bequeathed their property to their own children. Their (great) grandchildren now possess farms which, under a regime of justice, would have never been given to them. Instead, they would have been in the hands of the (great) grandchildren of slaves. To return these specific lands to those blacks in the present day who can prove their ancestors were forced to work on these plantations is thus to uphold private property rights, not to denigrate them.

In abstracto, the matter seems to be rather straightforward. Despite the passage of time, libertarian justice demands that the descendants of slave-owners pay restitution to the descendants of their ancestors’ slaves. We may acknowledge that these people have committed no sin themselves, but their moral exculpation has no bearing on whether or not their property claims are legitimate.

So how do libertarians and conservatives arrive at the same basic policy position on matters of race-based reparations? Even Walter Block refuses to advocate white reparations to blacks.

Like conservatives, libertarians reject notions of collective guilt. White people are not guilty of the crime of being white, and they aren’t guilty of the sins committed by other white people, past or present. Thus, all property claims, crimes, and payments of restitution take place on the individual level (even in joint titles and class-action law suits, shares of ownership and entitlement are identified at individual levels). For a descendent of a slave to make a claim against a white person, he would have to be able to show that the specific defendant is the descendent of the slave-owner who owned the specific ancestor of the claimant. In such a case, libertarian theory would justify restitution, even 150 years later.

But in the real world, such a claim is incredibly difficult to prove. And failure to prove a legitimate property claim means that the currently recognized property title holds. Anything else would be committing a new injustice to give the illusion of correcting an old one. General, race-based reparations, which is the only basis by which reparations are ever actually proposed, have no place in libertarian theory, and libertarians and conservatives tend to find themselves on the same side of the policy issue. But it remains instructive to identify the very distinct routes by which libertarians and conservatives arrive at their similar positions, which serves to highlight that libertarians are defending property rights, rather than merely upholding the status quo.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
What is the Mises Institute?

The Mises Institute is a non-profit organization that exists to promote teaching and research in the Austrian School of economics, individual freedom, honest history, and international peace, in the tradition of Ludwig von Mises and Murray N. Rothbard. 

Non-political, non-partisan, and non-PC, we advocate a radical shift in the intellectual climate, away from statism and toward a private property order. We believe that our foundational ideas are of permanent value, and oppose all efforts at compromise, sellout, and amalgamation of these ideas with fashionable political, cultural, and social doctrines inimical to their spirit.

Become a Member
Mises Institute