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Abolition: Who Deserved Compensation for What?


If you can't yet find all of Murray Rothbard's writing on Mises.org, the gap is small and closing. For those of us who discovered Rothbard through his books, it is especially fun to see the seeds of certain chapters sewn a decade or two earlier in letters to the Volker Fund, letters to and short articles for The Freeman, or as brief editorials in his own newsletters, Left & Right, and Libertarian Forum.

Take, for example, this beautiful little essay from the October 1969 issue of Libertarian Forum on how badly certain libertarians can go wrong with bad property theory:

Abolition: An Acid Test

It has come to our attention increasingly of late that many self-proclaimed libertarians balk at the idea of abolishing slavery. It is almost incredible to contemplate, for one would think that at least the minimal definition of a libertarian is someone who favors the immediate abolition of slavery. Surely, slavery is the polar opposite of liberty?

But it appears that many libertarians argue as follows: the slave-masters bought their slaves on the market in good faith. They have the bill of sale. Therefore, respect for their property rights requires that slavery be left intact, or at the very least that the slave-master be compensated for any loss of his slave at the market value.

I used to believe, and have written articles to that effect, that the idea that right-wingers uphold "property rights over human rights" is only a left-wing smear. But evidently it is not a smear. For these libertarians indeed go to the grotesque length of upholding property rights at the expense of the human right of self-ownership of every person. Not only that: by taking this fetishistic position these pro-slavery libertarians negate the very concept, the very basis, of property right itself. For where does property right come from? It can only come from one basic and ultimate source — and that is not the pronouncement of the State that Mr. A belongs to Mr. B. That source is the property right of every man in his own body, his right of self-ownership. From this right of self-ownership is derived his right to whatever previously unowned and unused resources a man can find and transform by the use of his labor energy. But if every man has a property right in his own person, this immediately negates any grotesquely proclaimed "property right" in other people.

There are five possible positions on the abolition of slavery question. (1) That slavery must be protected as a part of the right of property; and (2) that abolition may only be accompanied by full compensation to the masters, seem to me to fall on the basis of our above discussion. But the third route — simple abolition — the one that was adopted, was also unsatisfactory, since it meant that the means of production, the plantations on which the slaves worked, remained in the hands, in the property, of their masters. On the libertarian homesteading principle, the plantations should have reverted to the ownership of the slaves, those who were forced to work them, and not have remained in the hands of their criminal masters. That is the fourth alternative. But there is a fifth alternative that is even more just: the punishment of the criminal masters for the benefit of their former slaves — in short, the imposition of reparations or damages upon the former criminal class, for the benefit of their victims. All this recalls the excellent statement of the Manchester Liberal, Benjamin Pearson, who, when he heard the argument that the masters should be compensated replied that "he had thought it was the slaves who should have been compensated."

It should be clear that this discussion is of far more than antiquarian interest. For there are a great many analogues to slavery today, an enormous number of cases where property has been acquired not through legitimate effort but through State theft, and where, therefore, similar alternatives will have to be faced once more.

Those who know Rothbard's books should recognize these same points coming up in his 1982 treatise The Ethics of Liberty (MP3), in the chapters on land property and land monopoly, especially the final paragraph of chapter 11:


We have indicated above that there was only one possible moral solution for the slave question: immediate and unconditional abolition, with no compensation to the slavemasters. Indeed, any compensation should have been the other way — to repay the oppressed slaves for their lifetime of slavery. A vital part of such necessary compensation would have been to grant the plantation lands not to the slavemaster, who scarcely had valid title to any property, but to the slaves themselves, whose labor, on our "homesteading" principle, was mixed with the soil to develop the plantations. In short, at the very least, elementary libertarian justice required not only the immediate freeing of the slaves, but also the immediate turning over to the slaves, again without compensation to the masters, of the plantation lands on which they had worked and sweated. As it was, the victorious North made the same mistake — though "mistake" is far too charitable a word for an act that preserved the essence of an unjust and oppressive social system — as had Czar Alexander when he freed the Russian serfs in 1861: the bodies of the oppressed were freed, but the property which they had worked and eminently deserved to own, remained in the hands of their former oppressors. With the economic power thus remaining in their hands, the former lords soon found themselves virtual masters once more of what were now free tenants or farm laborers. The serfs and the slaves had tasted freedom, but had been cruelly deprived of its fruits.

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