Does Animals’ Meat-Eating Justify Our Own?

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I do not think that humanity can justify its mass consumption of sentient non-human animals. However, some humans try to justify it by pointing to the carnivorous behavior of other species. “If alligators and pigs consume animals,” these meat-eaters figure, “then why shouldn’t we?”

There are several answers. First of all, it appears that most carnivorous creatures cannot yet survive without eating animals. Perhaps that does not justify their aggressive behavior, and maybe humans should intercede for animal-carnivores’ unfortunate victims by restraining belligerent creatures and working harder to create plant-based diets that are suitable for carnivores’ consumption.

That said, we must draw a moral distinction between those organisms that need to consume sentient animals and the human meat-eaters who do not. Killing for survival is surely not so egregious as killing for pleasure, and humans who slaughter animals usually do it for pleasure (or what we call “taste”).

Of course, not all animals do need to consume other animals. Omnivorous pigs, for example, can survive on plant-based diets. It is therefore legitimate for humans to prevent pigs from eating other sentient beings. In this way, humans may play the paternalistic role of a parent who prevents one toddler from pummeling another.

But even if humans never manage to protect all prey from wild omnivores, humans’ own assaults on sentient animals will remain illegitimate. As we should know instinctively, other agents’ aggressive behavior cannot justify ours. If American parents tried mutilating their daughters’ genitals on the grounds that “parents in other countries do it with impunity,” we would laugh them out of the room. We would recognize there—as we should recognize here—that the failure of other actors to fulfill their moral obligations does not vindicate a similar failure on our part.

However, it is still possible that humans, despite their moral obligation to herbivores, have no moral obligation to those omnivores that eat sentient herbivores. For unlike herbivores (which eat insentient plants) and carnivores (which must eat animals), these omnivores needlessly inflict suffering on peaceful animals. Maybe it is moral, then, for humans to “punish” these predatory omnivores by killing and consuming them.

This line of reasoning, which essentially counsels the death penalty for non-human omnivores, should give us pause. Readers categorically opposed to the death penalty ought to reject the idea out of hand. For if it is wrong to execute humans who kill needlessly, then it is also wrong to execute bears, foxes, and whales that kill needlessly.

But even death penalty proponents should not support “executing” predatory omnivores. Capital punishment supporters moved by arguments from deterrence should realize that flesh-eating animals, because of their inability to understand the law, would not be deterred by the legal threat of death.

Death penalty proponents interested in retribution should be skeptical as well. Ruling it unconstitutional to execute cognitively impaired murderers, Justice John Paul Stevens noted in Atkins v. Virginia that executing somebody with a “diminished ability to understand and process information, to learn from experience, to engage in logical reasoning, or to control impulses” does not serve the death penalty’s retributive purpose. New York State similarly recognizes diminished guilt for offenders who “lacked substantial capacity to know or appreciate either that [their] conduct was against the law or that it was against commonly held moral principles, or both.” If only “the worst of the worst” deserve the death penalty—as eminent pro-death penalty scholar Robert Blecker argues—then predatory omnivores incapable of grasping the gravity and nature of their offenses should not be killed.

Granted, some literature suggests that certain animals do have the capacity to differentiate right from wrong. If people want to use that literature to try proving in a court of law that the predatory omnivores they kill deserve death, then they should be allowed to try. But if we permit the execution (and consumption) of predatory omnivores on the grounds that these moral agents violate other creatures’ rights, then—for equality’s sake—we must also be willing to execute (and feast upon?) humans who kill herbivorous deer, sheep, and rabbits. Maybe it is wisest, then, just to drop the retributivist justification for meat-eating altogether.

This set of excuses, based on the idea that animals’ predation justifies humans’ predation, may be tempting. Those searching for a reason to keep consuming animals might even think they have found the perfect alibi: they are doing nothing worse than their own victims do. Ultimately, though, other actors’ moral shortcomings cannot excuse our own, and subjecting predatory omnivores to a massive regime of capital punishment has scary implications that hardly anyone would accept.

This article originally appeared at unfetteredequality.com. The painting is Pieter Aertsen’s A Meat Stall with the Holy Family Giving Alms.

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A Debate on the Rights of Non-Human Animals

Friends,

I urge you to watch this important debate between Gary Francione and the late Tibor Machan regarding the rights of non-human animals. I think you will find Francione’s case quite strong.

 

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Liberty and Peace with Sheldon Richman

I recently sat down with author, editor, and left-libertarian extraordinaire Sheldon Richman to discuss political philosophy. Here’s the video!

You can also find a transcription (slightly edited for clarity’s sake) below.

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TR: Good evening, everybody. I’m Tommy Raskin.

I’m speaking today with Sheldon Richman. He is a polymath, a libertarian, a leftist, a rabble-rouser. He is the executive editor for the Libertarian Institute. He has worked with the Cato Institute in the past, and we’re really happy to have you here, Sheldon.

SR: Great to be here. Thanks for inviting me.

TR: Great. Now, I figure that a conversation isn’t much fun if we don’t have someone playing devil’s advocate. I find much of your work very compelling and persuasive, but I’m just going to push at the bounds of propriety a little bit (if that’s OK!).

SR: Please.

TR: Now, you’re an anarchist. What does that mean? What does it mean to believe that there should be no government whatsoever?

SR: Well, the shorthand is—you can buy a button that says this—anarchism is the radical idea that other people aren’t your property. What it means is all human relationships must be peaceful and consensual, which of course leads to—as I see it, at least—respect for persons’ justly acquired possessions (in other words, property rights) as well as the personal integrity of their person, their life, and property. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. So, it just means that the traditional functions that libertarians and classical liberals have been willing to concede to the state—namely, defense against invaders, courts for the peaceful resolution of disputes (like contract disputes), and also prosecution of criminals (people who violate other people’s rights)—those functions can be and over history have been handled in non-forcible ways. In other words, there’s no need to give the state a monopoly on the use of defensive force.

TR: I suppose that the concern that some people have is that if we do not have one overarching entity that is capable of resolving disputes between two parties that otherwise would not come to the table to negotiate—if we did not have one overarching entity that was capable of forcing an aggressor to pay his/her victim some sort of recompense or restitution—that those who are the richest, those with the most guns, would just bully those with fewer weapons into submission. Is that a fear that you have?

SR: Well, it’s a very common concern. I don’t have it. The logic of that, of course, would lead libertarians, or ought to lead libertarians, to call for a world government, because we do already live in an environment of international anarchism. (I was going to say anarchy. Unfortunately, people take that to mean chaos, and of course I don’t mean it that way.) We have international anarchy because there’s no world government. So who settles disputes among governments? Well, governments have lots of bilateral and multilateral agreements for resolving disputes. Most countries are not at war with each other. Most governments are not at war. There are always wars going on, although I think historically we’re at a small number of wars going on relative to earlier periods in the past if you believe Steven Pinker, for example.

TR: Sure.

SR: So if anarchy can exist at that level, aren’t we now just arguing over the level? Which reminds me of an old joke: we know what you are, we’re just haggling over the price! Old joke. Maybe not in good taste! But to transplant it to this subject: every libertarian I know is an anarchist and is just haggling over what level. Because I don’t know any anarchist who wants to turn the U.N., let’s say, into the world government.

TR: Right. Well, that was a point that I often made to folks at the Cato Institute—I was there this summer—who said that it would simply get too confusing if Sheldon had his own private defense agency and Tommy had his own. And I said, “Well, right now, Indonesia and East Timor, France and Libya, Iraq and Kuwait exist in a state of anarchy with each other. If you think that this is a problem, then you must support a world government.”

But to push back on that line of reasoning: couldn’t some libertarians say, “Well, yes, we don’t have a world government, and we have had chaos! We’ve had Iraq invade Kuwait. We’ve had the United States invade Iraq. We’ve had France invade Libya. We’ve had Indonesia invade East Timor. Wouldn’t it be a good thing if there were some global superstructure that were capable of adjudicating disputes between these two parties?” And again, I certainly recoil at the thought of something like that. But is there a certain logic there that you’re willing to flirt with?

SR: Well, we know enough about states to know what risks we take. States are dangerous. We know that. There’s the famous quotation, of course—that’s wrongly attributed to Washington, because no one’s been able to find anything Washington wrote—but the idea that government is not eloquence, it’s not reason, it’s force. To finish this up—it’s a fearful servant and a monstrous master. That’s not quite right, but that’s the point. So we know for public choice reasons and just knowledge of human nature and how incentives work if you create this monopoly, don’t assume good things are going to come about. Decentralized power has typically been favored by liberals. I’m using “liberals” in the classical liberal sense and libertarians’ thinking. It’s better to fragment power. What would a world government be? It would be the ultimate centralization of power.

I assume it would be a world federalist system of some kind. There is still an organization called the World Federalist Society. They want a world government. But what would stop the sub-governments from fighting with each other? So we know how governments work. We know what the bureaucratic dynamic is. It’s for self-preservation. It’s for mission creep. It’s for expansion. Why would we have confidence in that? If we’re worried about governments, it seems to me what we want is competition, not monopoly. And this goes back to—it happens to be on my tie—the great Gustave de Molinari, who was a friend of Bastiat’s. He hung out with that crowd of European liberals in the 19th century. And he wrote an essay, which is famous among libertarians, called “The Production of Security,” which is available online. And he pointed out that if competition is good, why isn’t it good in the production of security? Why do we accept either communism—as he put it— or democracy in security when we won’t accept it in manufacture of shoes and farming and other stuff like that? So I throw it back on the other side.

The other thing is I wrote an article recently called “Come and See the Anarchy Inherent in the System,” which actually is a play on an old Monty Python and the Holy Grail movie. Great movie, by the way. But there’s an early scene where a man who claims to be king is roughing up a peasant, and the peasant is saying, “Come and see the violence inherent in the system!” I want to make another point. There’s anarchy—even anarchism, in the good sense I mean it—even in the current system, by which I mean there’s a good deal of cooperation that no one will ever enforce by the use of violence. For example, we have a change in presidents coming up. We’re not going to have to force Obama to leave the White House and to let Trump in. That’s not very likely.

What keeps him from doing that? It’s not that he fears the army or the FBI is going to come at gunpoint and remove him. Why does he do that? And why do presidents enforce the laws passed by Congress? Or why do martials enforce orders from judges? It’s not because anybody’s holding a gun to their heads. It’s because they’re embedded in a system of incentives and custom. And so it’s expected that they’ll do that and the cost would be very high to them if they didn’t do it, not in the sense that somebody would point a gun at them and they’d be shot. But again, it’s the incentive system that’s already embedded in the system. So even in a state system, you have this ultimately resting on social consensus.

It’s been pointed out many times by David Hume and others that the number of rulers in any society is very small compared to the number of ruled. So governments ultimately can’t rule by force. They have to rule by people generally supporting. Now, they may support it for bad reasons—they might not even realize that they may have been indoctrinating into supporting it through the government schools and things of that nature—but ultimately the government operates. Force is in the background, of course. But most things go on without the government ever needing to use force. Now, it can.

So anarchism also rests on, I’ll say, social consensus, for lack of a better term. In other words, people expect things. Customs always arise in any society, and they can be, in a way, rigidly enforced by people shunning people that don’t observe basic customs (let’s say respect for other people). And so there are means that don’t involve physical force of enforcing customs, taboos, and—you know—etiquette. Down to the minutiae of etiquette. My point here is that the advocate of limited government can’t throw at the anarchist that “your system ultimately rests on cooperation,” because their system also ultimately rests on cooperation. Because if a significant number of people said, “We refuse to pay taxes,” the government doesn’t have enough guns or enforcers. Because we way outnumber that. So ultimately it’s relying on people cooperating. Why is it that totalitarian government puts so much money into propaganda? Because they can’t rule purely—purely—by force.

 

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Antiwar Minarchism

This essay has two objectives. First, it will illustrate the differences between “minarchist” and “anarchist” understandings of international warfare. Second, it will demonstrate that international warfare generally violates minarchist principles. If it succeeds in this latter respect, devoted minarchists will finish this essay confident that they can and should protest militarism.

Let us begin with some definitions. Ayn Rand labeled government “an institution that holds the exclusive power to enforce certain rules of social conduct in a given geographical area.” Minarchists welcome this institution, but only in small doses. They advocate a limited government, constituted of courts and “night watchmen,” whose sole objectives are to safeguard bodies, to protect private property, and to enforce legitimate contracts.

Anarchists argue that minarchists’ minimal government is not quite “minimal” enough. Rejecting all government, anarchists argue that no human institution should monopolize enforceable dispute resolution in a particular geographical area.

Non-anarchists may wonder: in the absence of a single court system, how would disputes get resolved? Different anarchists have different ideas, but the gist is that conflicting parties (or their representative defense agencies) would agree to submit their cases to independent judges. This cooperative system, anarchists note positively, would keep disputes out of the hands of largely unaccountable, prejudiced judges.

Let us now turn to the matter at hand: war. Anarchists consider war the progeny of statism. Without states, anarchists figure, tyrants wouldn’t be able to conscript civilians into paying for and perpetrating large-scale attacks on foreigners.  Remembering the tremendous damage that adversarial governments caused during the Gulf War, for instance, anarchists declare defiantly, “This is the problem with government!”

Consistent minarchists have a different view. They remember the Gulf War and tell anarchists, “No, this is the problem with anarchy!”

Under domestic anarchy, minarchists find, a strong person can assault a weak person without any legal repercussions. Under international anarchy, minarchists again find, a strong country can assault a weak country without any legal repercussions. Viewing these types of anarchy as analogous (if not identical), minarchists consider the Gulf War an unfortunate consequence of international anarchy.

Among other disagreements, a resource dispute precipitated Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Iraq’s government furiously alleged that Kuwait was slant drilling into the Rumaila oil field. Had Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Kuwait’s Jaber Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah been neighbors in a small American town, Saddam would have needed to sue the Kuwaiti government in order to secure recompense. That is, Saddam would have needed (1) to prove Kuwait’s guilt and (2) to allow the court to determine a fitting punishment. As we know, though, Iraq and Kuwait were two distinct countries, not two households living under a common government. No global army had the wherewithal to force Iraqi leaders and Kuwaiti leaders to resolve their disputes in a global court. Thus, Iraq had free reign to achieve its own vision of justice by attacking Kuwait.

True, the invasion did not go unpunished. In 1991, the United States government expelled Saddam Hussein from Kuwait and retaliated against Iraq. But America’s was not the response of a genuine minarchist superpower. A real minarchist superpower would have (1) used the least amount of force necessary to quell the violence in Kuwait and (2) forced the alleged Iraqi criminals to stand trial for their crimes. A global minarchist government would not have destroyed Iraqi infrastructure, killed hundreds (perhaps thousands) of civilians, or bombed swarms of retreating Iraqi troops on the “Highway of Death” (all of which the Americans did).

The reality, then, is that the United States government—by attacking masses of foreigners without giving them fair trials—acted as a vigilante during the First Gulf War. Similarly, NATO members acted as vigilantes when they facilitated Libyan rebels’ ouster and assassination of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. Russia acts as a vigilante when it buttresses the murderous Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Saudi Arabia acts as a vigilante when it kills Yemeni civilians in the process of fighting Houthis.

Clearly, the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and all other perpetrators of foreign intervention are not “objective” guarantors of world order. In our anarchic international system, they are self-appointed watchdogs that take matters into their own hands and literally get away with murder.

How should minarchists respond to this state of affairs? They ought to tell themselves: “In the absence of a limited global government, the countries of the world exist in a state of anarchy with each other, meaning that well-armed governments can assassinate foreigners with impunity. Therefore, minarchists and other peaceful people should try to keep the world’s 196 national governments away from each other’s throats. For if international wars continue, civilians will continue to get caught in the crossfire, and alleged ‘criminals’ will continue to get killed without trial.”

Some libertarians disagree. For his part, Richard Epstein argues that “we need Pax Americana in international affairs” in order to “snuff out a large number of troublemakers.” A libertarian American government, these interventionists argue, can and should confront criminals abroad in the same way it confronts criminals at home.

But if the United States really were to treat foreign criminals the way it treats domestic criminals, the United States would send actual police officers into foreign countries in order to arrest the alleged perpetrators. It would not maintain its current modus operandi of dropping bombs on foreign antagonists, accepting tremendous collateral damage, and demanding little accountability for the American agents who kill civilians.

With that being said, some minarchists might still believe that the United States’ interventions in Kosovo, Iraq, Syria, and Libya have helped more than harmed the cause of liberty. Fully evaluating the intricacies and failures of all these interventions will require separate essays. For now, though, we can observe that minarchist theory is hard to square with militaristic ideologies in today’s world. At the core of minarchism lies a respect for individual rights, including the right to life and the right to a fair trial. At the core of militarism lies an inadequate concern for civilians’ right to life and alleged criminals’ right to fair trials.

Thus, pending the (unlikely) creation of a global minarchist government, minarchists should join their anarchist friends in trying to limit the carnage that warring national governments produce in the international arena. Minarchists, anarchists, and other believers in individual rights do not always see eye to eye, but they should all recognize the dangers of war.

This piece originally appeared at libertarianinstitute.org.  

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Concerning a Defense of Government

According to one defense of government, citizens’ use of government services adequately explains and justifies the existence of political obligations. By attending government schools, walking on government sidewalks, and calling 911, citizens “tacitly agree” to taxation, jury duty, and military registration, or so the argument goes.

One tempting rebuttal—that enforceable agreements cannot be tacit—fails pretty quickly. It seems clear that when we order food at a restaurant, for example, we tacitly agree to pay for our meal, unless we say otherwise at the outset.

I therefore favor another rebuttal: the pro-government argument relies on a causal link that does not actually exist. If, as the original argument posits, we incur political obligations just because we use government services, then surely we may relieve ourselves of political obligations by simply declining to use government services.

As we know though, this is not how political obligations usually operate. On tax day, the government does not ask us how frequently we use its services. In fact, a woman who never once calls the government’s fire department still must subsidize it. A man without children still must subsidize government schools. People who never travel by airplane still must subsidize the Transportation Security Administration.

The government, in other words, is not an ordinary waiter who expects payment for services rendered. Instead, the government is a “waiter” who shows up at our homes and declares, “I am here to offer you a meal. You may accept the meal or refuse the meal, but I demand compensation no matter what.” Accepting services under these conditions surely does not justify the waiter’s initial imposition.

Some government proponents respond that citizens necessarily benefit from government, that we incur political obligations because we receive government assistance whether we like it or not. The fire department keeps proximate fires from spreading to our homes, for example. The military deters foreigners from invading our communities. The police deter thieves from robbing us. In these ways, the government is similar to a fairy that, with or without our permission, painlessly cures our illnesses while we sleep.

Though this point makes the pro-government argument somewhat more alluring, it too proves deficient. Even if we do inadvertently benefit from government action, why must we pay a penny for it? If we never request the service and never even imply that we will pay for it, then we should consider it nothing more than a gift.

One pro-government response is that each citizen, by voting for politicians who superintend this system, actually does request government services and the attendant political obligations. Attractive at first blush, this response neglects the fact that many citizens do not vote for government action but are forced to facilitate it nonetheless. Citizens who endorse losing candidates, for example, still have political obligations. So do the millions of citizens who choose not to vote. When a democratic government obligates you, it does not care whether you voted for the obligation—only that someone did.

Another pro-government response is that citizens implicitly request government services and the attendant political obligations when they opt to live on the government’s territory. But why assume, as this response does, that the US government legitimately owns all the land from New York to San Francisco or that the Turkish government rightfully possesses every natural resource from Bodrum to Kars? Only by a stretch of the statist imagination, redolent of Sir Robert Filmer’s contention that God granted exclusive dominion to the world’s kings, do governments simply “get” to own vast swaths of the earth. Far fairer is the Lockean principle, established contra Filmer, that people must actually mix their labor with unused natural resources in order to own them.

It is clear, then, that citizens’ use of government services can neither account for nor excuse the existence of political obligations. For one, the government obligates people who do not use its services. People who use government services, in other words, do so with the understanding that the government will likely coerce them even if they refuse service. Moreover, in those cases where the sheer ubiquity of government essentially forces citizens to use government services, the users are not necessarily “asking for” the services or the accompanying political obligations. Simply living under a democratic government does not count as requesting government action. Neither does living on territory that the government has improperly arrogated to itself. Exchanges born of interpersonal coercion, even when the government is involved, possess no legitimacy.

This article originally appeared at c4ss.org.

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The Fight for Homeless Homesteading

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Municipal governments across the country are targeting vagrants for “misusing” public property. A couple of months ago, the City of Denver, Colorado cracked down on “Resurrection Village,” a homeless community built on public land. A month earlier, the City Council of Colorado Springs, Colorado, reduced the number of legal reasons for which people may sit and lie on downtown streets. The City Council of Tempe, Arizona, issued a similar proclamation in April, and the City Council of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, recently voted to prohibit people from panhandling within 50 feet of public transportation stops.

The Coalition for Compassion and Action, Denver Homeless Out Loud, the ACLU, and sundry homeless activists say that these ordinances violate civil rights. City officials maintain that they safeguard businesses, non-homeless pedestrians, and homeless people alike.

Who is wrong here? The state of course!

As Murray Rothbard explained, X may acquire an ownerless natural resource by mixing his labor with it. X may even acquire that resource by paying Y to cultivate it on X’s behalf. But if X robs Y in order to finance X’s cultivation of that resource, then X—because of his flagrant assault on Y—loses his moral claim to the resource and must immediately surrender it to Y, the true homesteader. If Y is for some reason unavailable to claim the property, then it becomes essentially ownerless again, and anyone other than X may homestead it.

According to these principles, it is clearly legitimate for peaceful vagrants to camp in untransformed forests and fields. Nobody has homesteaded these resources, so nobody— including the state— has a prior claim to them. The state’s only remotely justifiable imposition would be a “land-value tax” to compensate all citizens who would miss out on the use of these newly homesteaded resources, but even this “geo-libertarian” intervention would place a morally dubious burden on the homeless homesteaders in question. Surely we must not think of tolerating any government action more extensive than that, then.

Unlike the homeless homesteader, who does nothing improper by pitching a tent or unfurling a sleeping bag on ownerless land, the state routinely constructs sidewalks, benches, and lots at the expense of unwilling taxpayers. Unlike the homeless homesteader, then, the state has no right to “its” creations. These instead belong properly to the mulcted taxpayers, each in proportion to her (forced) contribution to the creation in question.

We reach a practical obstacle, of course, in determining how much money each taxpayer contributed and what exactly she wants to do with her share of each public item.  We must therefore turn to the second-best solution, in which individuals other than the proven victims begin confiscating state-controlled property. The homeless can help facilitate this process by transforming public constructions into centers of recreation and exchange. Although this solution does not restore goods to their most rightful owners, it at least gives the loot to non-culpable people and reduces the allure of expropriation by demonstrating that nobody can get away with requisitioning private resources. In this way, the new homesteaders perform a valuable service on behalf of peaceful people everywhere.

As a brief aside, we should note that the new homesteaders do not have carte blanche to abuse these properties, for these goods are not totally ownerless. Whereas previously ownerless resources (such as untransformed fields) can be acquired fully by their homesteaders, public constructions ultimately belong to the people who paid for them—in this case, the taxpayers. Therefore, it would be objectionable for a pedestrian to destroy a public bench or to urinate on a public sidewalk, as that would diminish the quality of the public items in question and would thereby prevent the rightful owners from retrieving their property in its pristine form.

With that being said, there is no reason to believe that peaceful acts of panhandling, lounging on city streets, camping in public lots, and sleeping on downtown benches damage expropriated property. Indeed, these activities are usually quite benign, and if ever they turn violent, the perpetrators can be apprehended for violating other laws.

Surely this perspective will disturb many people. Even Rothbard, who at one point advocated mass homesteading of public property, asserted at the end of his career that police officers should “take back the streets” by removing “bums and vagrants” en masse. Others with a mind for liberty today may worry that homeless people on public property will deter pedestrians from patronizing nearby businesses. Still others may suspect that homeless people themselves will benefit if the state nudges them towards homeless shelters.

Though understandable, these sentiments are ultimately misguided. When it advances private market interests by removing homeless people from morally ownerless property, the taxpayer-funded government thereby becomes the enforcement hand of private businessmen who seek to control expropriated (“public”) property without ever homesteading it. Where is the justice in that? It is one thing for the state to protect the private property of a business, quite another for the state to regulate property that the business does not even own.

It is also irrelevant, whether or not it is true, that homeless people would be “better off” in homeless shelters. For our present purposes, all that should matter is that homeless people do not violate anybody’s rights by inhabiting and soliciting money on public property. Concerned citizens certainly may advocate the use of homeless shelters, but they have no right to employ coercive state power in order to effectuate their desired outcome.

We should be resolute, then: until taxpayers claim their individual shares of public sidewalks and lots, which may never happen, the homeless need not move an inch. The homeless are as capable as anyone of seizing the state’s morally tainted property and imprinting their personalities in the ownerless lands that they find. Prejudiced and paternalistic attempts to disrupt these commendable processes must not stand. Let the homeless stay!

This article originally appeared at c4ss.org

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The Restoration of African Americans’ Stolen Property

Every so often, the call for African-American reparations re-emerges in full force. The Atlantic author Ta-Nehisi Coates is perhaps the most prominent pundit to issue the call in recent years, pointing to America’s shameful history of slavery and segregation as grounds for restitution. Because American depravities placed black people at an economic disadvantage, he reasons, and because no formal reparation has yet been paid, the United States should now right its wrongs.

Many other activists, such as Hillary Clinton, emphasize formal reparations less than race-based affirmative action as a way of elevating racial minorities. These thinkers generally argue that traditionally white institutions can help mitigate the enduring effects of past oppression by simply seeking out and offering special consideration to black applicants.

To evaluate either of these remedies to historical racism, we must determine what sort of society we favor and what mechanisms will allow that society to flourish. In ideal circumstances, I posit, people of all colors interact in a nonviolent and voluntary manner. They establish dominion over unowned land by mixing their labor with it. They purchase goods and render services at their discretion. They cultivate friendships, proffer gifts, invest in social action organizations, and collaborate in the spirit of non-coercive mutualism. By allowing peaceful people to use their bodies and property freely, this arrangement respects the individual character and autonomy of everyone it affects.

When people contravene these norms by aggressing against the bodies and property of their peers, we should (1) punish the aggressors and (2) force them to “repair” what they destroyed—in a sense, to make their victims “whole” again. In the event that a criminal dies before trial, his heir should not endure punishment but should be forced to return his ill-gotten property to its legitimate owner.

These principles have several implications. Suppose that a thief steals an innocent woman’s red purse, quickly hands it off to his unwitting wife, and then commits suicide. Must the wife, who aggressed against nobody, now return the red purse to her late husband’s victim? Indeed she must. Although she is not a thief herself, she possesses stolen property and has no right to withhold it from its rightful owner.

Now suppose that the thief, instead of giving the purse to his wife, bequeaths it to his daughter on his deathbed. Suppose that the thief’s victim’s daughter, 50 years later and after her mother has died, sees the thief’s daughter walking around with the stolen purse. Does the victim’s daughter here have a legitimate claim to the purse adorning the arm of a peaceful pedestrian? Again, the answer is yes. If the victim’s daughter can demonstrate that she would have inherited the purse had her mother never gotten robbed, then she can justifiably take the purse from the thief’s daughter.

Next, let us suppose that 5 men rob 15 women and then retreat to a neighborhood of 20 other men. Suppose that the 15 indignant women then enter that neighborhood and demand reparations from all 25 men. Are the victims in the right? Here, the answer is no. The only men who owe reparations are those who possess stolen goods. The other neighbors are undoubtedly justified in helping these women voluntarily, but they should not be compelled to do so.

With these principles in mind, let us now turn our attention to race-based affirmative action. Should a private institution, composed of individuals whose consciences impel them to assist certain groups, have the right to use affirmative action? Yes. Any private institution that relies on voluntary market transactions merely exercises its right to free association by adopting an affirmative action policy.

The answer is different for public institutions. In a state system, public institutions almost invariably rely on taxation, a process whereby the government dragoons innocent people into subsidizing whatever projects the majority (in a democracy) or powerful minority (in an oligarchy) fancies. Public affirmative action programs are therefore objectionable, not because affirmative action is inherently wrong, but because public affirmative action operates at the expense of non-criminal taxpayers.

Beyond that, the imprecision of race-based affirmative action weakens the program’s efficacy as a tool of corrective justice. That is because beneficiary B of race-based affirmative action does not need to demonstrate that his ancestor, A, was robbed of funds that B would have received had A not gotten robbed. Nor must the people disfavored by affirmative action possess property that rightfully belongs to affirmative action’s beneficiaries.

We must therefore reject the notion, propagated by such theorists as David Horowitz, that race-based affirmative action and similarly sweeping welfare programs “count” as reparations for slavery. Contra Horowitz’s claims, reparations “count” only when they go to the victims of crime exclusively. If all black people, poor people, single parents, or Americans qualify for “slavery reparations,” then these are not actually slavery reparations, because not all black people, poor people, single parents, or Americans today descend from slaves. Moreover, reparations for slavery, like reparations for any other crime, “count” only when tendered unconditionally. If slaves’ descendants must apply to certain colleges, achieve certain test scores, work certain jobs, maintain certain incomes, or keep a certain marital status in order to qualify for “slavery reparations,” then these are not slavery reparations either.

Authentic reparations, in both intent and effect, are straightforward: they restore stolen property to its rightful owners. Ethnicity, occupational status, educational status, and everything else do not enter the equation. A Palestinian whose parents were expelled from their land is entitled to reclaim his family’s property. A Jew whose parents were robbed by Egyptians is entitled to retrieve his family’s goods also. The same premise holds true everywhere else for everyone else. Should we demand a statute of limitation for these sorts of property claims? Not at all, for as Walter Block reminds us, “Justice is justice is justice.” With that being said, the onus is on the plaintiff to prove beyond a reasonable doubt (1) that his ancestors legitimately owned the property in question and (2) that the contemporary defendant possesses the property illicitly.

Therefore, reparations must not rely on taxation or other slipshod methods of wealth redistribution. Taking property from every American in order to subsidize reparative checks or public programs would amount to rough-and-tumble collective punishment. If we oppose state-administered collective punishment in other situations—if we believe, as we should, that it is abominable for the American government to assassinate civilians on enemy territory in Iraq, Pakistan, and Yemen—then we should oppose it here as well. Just as it is barbarous for state officials to kill innocents who live near terrorists, so too is it barbarous, albeit to a lesser degree, for state officials to seize property from civilians who live near people with stolen property.

A different type of reparations might have us reduce taxes by exempting African Americans from income taxation for a certain period of time. How about it? The gesture would be admirable, but it would go not nearly far enough as a form of “reparation.” In the first place, nobody— African-American or otherwise— should have to pay income taxes. Even if they occasionally use income tax revenue for benevolent causes, statesmen do not deserve innocent people’s income any more than occasionally benevolent thieves do. To rescind African Americans’ income tax obligation, then, would be to respect the property rights of African Americans going forward without compensating them for past injuries.

A justifiable reparations program would be appropriately backward looking, allowing nothing more and nothing less than for affected individuals to retrieve their property from its illegitimate possessors. Though this model is clearly more restrictive than the state-facilitated taxation model, it nonetheless presents clear opportunities for restitution. Descendants of the 1,250 slaves owned by J.P. Morgan Chase’s predecessor banks, for instance, could bring claims against the company now. So too could the descendants of slaves exploited by the Bank of Charleston and the Georgia Railroad and Bank Company, both of which Wachovia acquired before the extant Wells Fargo acquired Wachovia.

Other modern companies did not own slaves but still profited from slavery. Brooks Brothers, for example, sold slave clothes to masters. Might such a company have to pay reparations also?

Yes. Suppose that I steal 10 dollars from you and surreptitiously use it to buy myself a movie ticket from a local cinema. Although the cinema did not steal the 10 dollars from you, it now possesses 10 of your dollars that you did not relinquish voluntarily. That property is rightfully yours, and you should be allowed to take it back, no matter the identity of the person who now holds it. Of course, if you were to take it back, the cinema’s operator would be down ten dollars and would therefore be well within his right to sue me for buying a movie ticket with stolen money. Even if he could not find me though, he would owe you your ten dollars.

Brooks Brothers’s debt to slaves’ descendants is even more clear-cut than the cinema operator’s debt to you. Slavery is worse than mere theft, but beyond that, the cinema operator did not know that I was purchasing a ticket with stolen money, whereas Brooks Brothers knew that its slaveholding customers were purchasing attire with stolen wages. It should therefore be abundantly clear that people have legitimate claims against Brooks Brothers if they can prove that their ancestors’ masters purchased Brooks Brothers attire.

“But wait!” some might plead. “What if Brooks Brothers has donated to African-American charities in the past century? What if it has offered jobs to African Americans?  Surely that counts as reparation.” Actually, it does not. A criminal who bankrolls charities and employs people still has an obligation to his victims.

We should not let other such irrelevancies distract us from the moral case for reparations. It does not matter, for instance, that some slaves’ black descendants are today wealthier than the white people who owe them reparations. A poor man who illegally possesses a rich man’s property, after all, still owes a debt to the rich man. Nor does it matter that some slave owners were black. Because a just system of restitution does not function on the basis of skin color, the heirs of black slave owners would be just as liable as the heirs of white slave owners.

It is also irrelevant that slavers, by bringing Africans to America, inadvertently gave slaves’ descendants access to lucrative American markets. Imagine, as a parallel, that a rapist illegally enters a woman’s home, strangles his victim with a necklace that he purchased, and then departs without removing it from her neck. When the victim takes her assailant to court, the rapist insists that they should “call it even” since he “gave her a necklace” in the process of raping her. Of course, this frightening logic ignores the fact that the victim never agreed to exchange her body (or anything else) for that necklace. Because the rapist unilaterally “gave” his victim a necklace outside the confines of a two-way contract, he cannot reasonably expect anything in return. The same goes for Americans who got wealthy off of slavery. Because slave traders unilaterally transported slaves to America outside the confines of a two-way contract, slaves’ descendants have no obligation to pay for their presence in America by now surrendering their right to reparations.

Although it is not quite an “irrelevancy,” the fact that American slave owners operated with the sanction of law does not undermine the case for reparations either. Law, lest we forget, is often just a tool that powerful people use to facilitate human rights abuses. It possesses no intrinsic value and deserves no knee-jerk appreciation. The law of slave owners, like the law of fascists, should here matter no more to us than barbarians’ arbitrary decrees do.

There remain intricacies to work out, but the African-American reparations idea is neither quixotic nor academic. It hews to a strict conception of property rights and meets the demands of corrective justice. Unlike collective punishment programs that run roughshod over individual rights, it takes property from select individuals and distributes it to the people whose ancestors lost it. To the extent possible, then, it gives people what they would have had if mass expropriation had not occurred.

This article originally appeared at c4ss.org.

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