Power & Market

Rothbard on Slavery Reparations

In 1969 the hottest new libertarian publication was The Libertarian Forum, edited by Murray Rothbard in New York and Karl Hess in Washington. Hess, famously as associate of Barry Goldwater before becoming a deeply disillusioned anarchist, was a man of many talents—welding, motorcycle racing, and no-holds-barred philosophy among them. His street fighter style, combined with Rothbard’s acerbic writing and penetrating political eye, made the Forum an outlet for strategy and tactics more than anything. And it had a surprisingly long run, until 1984, in physical print no less.

There is nothing like it today, either in style or content.

As just one example, consider the short essay Rothbard penned for the June 15, 1969, issue. “Confiscation and the Homestead Principle” elaborates on Rothbard’s earlier writing in Power and Market concerning homesteading of land. In the latter, he criticized the Georgist notion of “societal” ownership or control of real property in favor of a “first-user, first-owner” principle. In the former, he considered how we might determine proper title to stolen property, i.e. land where current possession is not based on legitimate homesteading or title transfer.

The homesteading principle means that the way that unowned property gets into private ownership is by the principle that this property justly belongs to the person who finds, occupies, and transforms it by his labor. This is clear in the case of the pioneer and virgin land. But what of the case of stolen property? 

This is especially tricky when the thief is the state and the victim is not readily identifiable:

Let us now apply our libertarian theory of property to the case of property in the hands of, or derived from, the State apparatus. The libertarian sees the State as a giant gang of organized criminals, who live off the theft called “taxation” and use the proceeds to kill, enslave, and generally push people around. Therefore, any property in the hands of the State is in the hands of thieves, and should be liberated as quickly as possible. Any person or group who liberates such property, who confiscates or appropriates it from the State, is performing a virtuous act and a signal service to the cause of liberty. In the case of the State, furthermore, the victim is not readily identifiable...All taxpayers, all draftees, all victims of the State have been mulcted. How to go about returning all this property to the taxpayers? What proportions should be used in this terrific tangle of robbery and injustice that we have all suffered at the hands of the State? 

The answers are thorny. State-owned entities, like universities, are readily identified and seized. But seized by whom, and given to whom? When decades or centuries have passed, how do we determine rightful owners of land? And what about corporations that derive 50% or 75% of their income from taxes, such as defense contractors? Should they be nationalized, liquidated, and the proceeds distributed to taxpayers?1  

But the most interesting feature of the essay, deals with the idea of land reparations for descendants of American slaves.

This brings us to Karl’s point about slaves. One of the tragic aspects of the emancipation of the serfs in Russia in 1861 was that while the serfs gained their personal freedom, the land – their means of production and of life, their land was retained under the ownership of their feudal masters. The land should have gone to the serfs themselves, for under the homestead principle they had tilled the land and deserved its title. Furthermore, the serfs were entitled to a host of reparations from their masters for the centuries of oppression and exploitation. The fact that the land remained in the hands of the lords paved the way inexorably for the Bolshevik Revolution, since the revolution that had freed the serfs remained unfinished.

The same is true of the abolition of slavery in the United States. The slaves gained their freedom, it is true, but the land, the plantations that they had tilled and therefore deserved to own under the homestead principle, remained in the hands of their former masters. Furthermore, no reparations were granted the slaves for their oppression out of the hides of their masters. Hence the abolition of slavery remained unfinished, and the seeds of a new revolt have remained to intensify to the present day. Hence, the great importance of the shift in Negro demands from greater welfare handouts to “reparations,” reparations for the years of slavery and exploitation and for the failure to grant the Negroes their land, the failure to heed the Radical abolitionist’s call for “40 acres and a mule” to the former slaves. In many cases, moreover, the old plantations and the heirs and descendants of the former slaves can be identified, and the reparations can become highly specific indeed. 

Rothbard wrote this a century after the Civil War, and another 50 years have gone by since. Can old plantation land be seized today, given all the subsequent owners and land development? (e.g. parceling into housing owned by innocent good faith buyers). Can we identify slave descendants accurately? And if so, wouldn’t such a descendant living in another part of the US likely prefer cash to a land title in a southern state? Some slaves may have hundreds of living descendants, will cash amounts be reduced pro rata? 

One thing is certain: if paid, reparations will be financed via deficits and general taxes, not specific payments from person X to person Y. “The government,” an amorphous blob, will pay—which means all of us, including black Americans, will foot the bill via taxes and inflation.

  • 1For more on the distinction between stolen and unowned land, see Stephan Kinsella’s blog on Rothbard’s evolution regarding the subject. As Kinsella explains, Rothbard appears to have changed his thinking between 1969 (when “Confiscation and the Homestead Principle” was published); 1974, in an article titled “Justice and Property Rights,” and in Chapter 9 of 1982’s The Ethics of Liberty. Kinsella suggests Rothbard does not assert that any cloud over a land title’s provenance means the land is open to seizure or homesteading. Subsequent or current owners may be completely innocent in any case, and their rights cannot simply be dismissed.
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