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’s 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.

Now on 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.

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The Left-Libertarian Balancing Act

The non-aggression principle forbids assaults on the bodies and property of nonviolent people. Along with the Lockean theory of homesteading, this principle lies at the heart of contemporary libertarian doctrine.

Although they promote the non-aggression principle, left-libertarians argue that interpersonal aggression is not the only impediment to liberty. Hunger, thirst, illness, heat, and cold have insidious ways of “aggressing” against people and limiting human maneuvering as well. With that in mind, left-libertarians assert that the pursuit of freedom requires us to overcome interpersonal obstacles as well as “natural” or “environmental” obstacles to voluntary human action.

It is already clear, then, that left-libertarians resemble but differ markedly from their leftist and libertarian friends. Like mainstream leftists, left-libertarians are inclined to support policies that help people achieve “freedom from want.” Like mainstream libertarians, left-libertarians are also inclined to reject policies that intensify human aggression against other humans. In these respects, left-libertarians look a lot like leftists and libertarians both.

But left-libertarians bemoan two significant omissions in mainstream leftism and libertarianism. For their part, many American leftists say too little about state aggression against civilians. Although they appropriately condemn government for bombing civilians abroad and locking up nonviolent drug offenders at home, they seem to ignore the root of the problem: namely, that governments arrogate to themselves the unique “right” to seize civilians’ bodies and property at the point of a gun. Thus, such aggressive acts as taxation very often get a free pass from leftists.

Meanwhile, libertarians more than understand the dangers of government. Indeed, most of their political activity centers on limiting (or outright abolishing) governmental action. But in basing their entire philosophy on the non-aggression principle, strict philosophical libertarians tolerate the possibility of mass suffering in their desired society. After all, if nobody may force anybody else to surrender even a penny for a worthy cause, then homeless orphans and sick seniors may very well die in the absence of forthcoming philanthropists.

Perhaps, as many libertarians are quick to respond, human altruism will always guarantee a safety net for people at the bottom of a stateless society. But strict libertarians, who advocate non-aggression on principle, should admit that they would favor statelessness even if donors wouldn’t meet vulnerable people’s needs in a stateless society. After all, the non-aggression principle proscribes taxation in all cases, including when too few altruists intercede for the victims of hurricanes, cancer, starvation, and other “attacks from nature.”

Thus, in paying special attention to interpersonal and natural aggression both, left-libertarians stick themselves in the middle, taking pains to perform a strenuous political balancing act. Their ongoing challenge is (1) to reduce natural suffering without increasing interpersonal aggression and (2) to reduce interpersonal aggression without increasing natural suffering.

Different left-libertarians have different ways of meeting this challenge. Some become “bleeding-heart libertarians,” small-government advocates who support only enough governmental intervention to shield people from the pain of dire poverty. Others become free-market anarchists, confident that human altruism and totally free markets can deliver all necessary goods to deprived people. Other left-libertarians admit to temporary agnosticism, waiting to see whether non-state organizations are adequately equipped to fulfill every human need in the 21st century.

It would be easy enough for left-libertarians to abandon this uneasy position by blending into mainstream leftism or libertarianism. But because they do not believe that either interpersonal aggression or natural aggression alone circumscribes liberty, left-libertarians proudly occupy the middle. They understand, as libertarians do, that the coercive subordination of one human being to another obstructs the victim’s flourishing. They also understand, as leftists do, that freedom is a vacuous concept if ostensibly “free” people lack the food, clothing, shelter, and medicine necessary to stave off aggression from nature. Although these positions are bound to provoke accusations of inconsistency, left-libertarianism actually seems to be one of the most consistent political dispositions. It is consistent, that is, with a comprehensive definition of human freedom in real-world settings.

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Breaking Away

The shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile have laid bare modern statism for the entire world to see. At its core, the state is not an instrument of dialogue. It does not retain power through mere persuasion. In disputes, it does not agree to disagree.

No, the state is a regional monopoly on violence, sustained by its territory’s largest arsenal. Were it not for the threat of violence, government decrees would be simple suggestions. Laws are laws and orders are orders because their promulgators ultimately rest their case on force.

Americans are getting tired of the abuse. Last Monday, Chicago activist Jessica Disu called for the abolition of police. Mychal Denzel Smith issued the same call last year. Classical liberals are sympathetic as well. Why shouldn’t they be? The American police force relies on taxation, that illiberal process whereby the state compels “contributions” to government agencies.

Police lack the confidence of many black communities in particular. More than 50 percent of African Americans say their community police do a “poor” or “fair” job, and upwards of 40 percent feel “more anxious than safe” with local officers around.

Were we in a freed market, African Americans (like all other Americans) would not have to subsidize America’s current police force or depend on it for protection. Without vacating their homes, they would hire whatever private protection agency they wanted, and if ever the US “government” harassed them, they would call upon their agency for the purposes of defense and negotiation.

This outcome may be distant, but meaningful steps can move us in the right direction. We can begin by fighting laws against free association. Protest the government’s war on drugsintrusion into homeless communities, bans on loose cigarette sales, bans on sex workfare evasion crackdowns, civil asset forfeituree-cigarette regulations, anti-panhandling ordinances, sit-lie ordinances, and the glut of other statutes that police use to accost nonviolent people. As laws disappear, so will opportunities for police brutality.

Second, continue policing the police by recording their public encounters. Neighbors may even take a cue from the Black Panthers by forming independent community associations to patrol policed streets. Although these processes will not strip the government of its monopoly power, hopefully they will discourage individual assaults on civilians.

Third, wean Americans off the police by using alternative methods of dispute resolution when possible. Experiment with private mediation services. Independent community associations may help here as well. Start by urging people involved in domestic discord, adolescent squabbles, and other low-level conflicts to call conciliators rather than 911. Explain that unarmed or lightly armed third parties can de-escalate conflicts that heavily armed police might otherwise escalate.

Remember that decentralized regulation is nothing new in America. For instance, the Republic of New Afrika pursued it in the 1960s and 1970s by moving to form a voluntary community with its own legal system on its own land in the “American” South. Striving for complete autonomy, RNA members intended ultimately to adjudicate every internal conflict—not just adolescent squabbles—without the interference of the American government.

If Americans today are similarly inclined to establish entirely independent systems of governance, supporters of free association should defend their right to try. If it was legitimate for beleaguered subjects to separate from Britain in the 18th century, then it is legitimate for beleaguered subjects to separate from the United States in the 21st century.

Finally, embrace nonaggression and respect as both ends and means. As we know, free societies thrive on an appreciation for human dignity. Everyday civility advances the cause of free societies by discrediting the myth that we need state police to keep the peace.

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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.

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The Fight for Homeless Homesteading


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!

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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.

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Posted in Criminal Justice

State Cannot Seperate From Church


Classical liberalism recommends, in Thomas Jefferson’s words, “a wall of separation” between church and state. In his case for religious toleration, John Locke argued that separation protects people from the “compulsive force” of individuals trying to inculcate “certain doctrines” through “fire and sword.” Robert Audi later added that “if the state prefers one or more religions, its people might well find it hard to practice another …”

These thinkers recognized that state sponsors of religion unfairly disfavor dissenting citizens by forcing them to buttress religious programs that they oppose. We can extend this observation to say that state discrimination against certain theists — the sort of discrimination that existed in the Soviet Union, for example — also subordinates citizens on the basis of religion and therefore weakens the separation of church and state as well. Classical liberalism generally grapples with these realities by prescribing a state system wherein peaceful groups, both religious and non-religious, may operate freely.

The problem with this prescription is that no such state has ever existed or can ever exist. To understand why, we must remember that a state is defined by its coercive monopoly on the use of force in a particular geographic area. Although states can theoretically employ lotteries, user fees, and other arguably non-coercive mechanisms to survive, actual states tend to sustain themselves through taxation instead. Two of the most widespread features of states, then, require the use of force against innocent people.

We will quickly find that these types of state coercion preclude the unimpeded practice of peaceful religion. Consider a case in which this fact is abundantly clear — the case of a theocracy, for instance, wherein each citizen must give 20 percent of her income to an established state church. This legal arrangement plainly violates the separation of church and state, as it requires every religious dissident to run afoul of her conscience by bankrolling a church that she does not support. In assisting a single religion at the taxpayers’ expense, it thwarts the religious exercise of dissidents who, with 20 cents of their every dollar devoted to a religion that they reject, have 20 cents fewer to donate to organizations that they actually embrace.

Let us now consider a tougher case: a liberal democracy in which the government maintains a nominal separation of church and state and uses taxpayer dollars only for such secular purposes as the creation of public roads, public bridges, public schools, police forces and courts. Because it does not explicitly endorse any particular religion, this state might appear unobjectionable. No Catholic taxpayer, the state’s apologists might note, ever has to subsidize directly the salary of a Protestant minister. But suppose that a neo-Luddite citizen approaches this liberal government and refuses to pay taxes for roads. Suppose that this neo-Luddite’s objection to automobile use (and the roads that enable it) is just as sincere as a neighboring Catholic’s objection to Protestantism. If the state opts to arrest this neo-Luddite tax resister, the state is respecting Catholics over Neo-Luddites and is thereby contravening the separation of church and state.

Next, let us envision a minimal state that taxes citizens only to protect their bodies, to safeguard their property, and to enforce their contracts. This arrangement is also exceptionable. Although the state now has fewer opportunities to compel people to violate their consciences, some opportunities remain. For example, an atheist taxpayer still has to pay for the police force that a local church uses to fend off belligerent protestors. That subsidy is not insubstantial, as it frees up other funds for the church to devote to its religious activity. Remember also that whatever tax dollars the atheist involuntarily hands over to the local church are dollars that he cannot spend on an organization he actually favors.

This subsidy problem runs in the opposite direction as well. In a minimal state, Christian taxpayers must finance the state’s protection of an art gallery full of anti-Christian images. That too is unacceptable, as it similarly forces peaceful people to violate their moral codes.

There is still another state arrangement for us to consider. In this final arrangement, the state retains a police force and legal system but eschews taxation in favor of lotteries, user fees, and other non-aggressive methods of generating revenue. The taxation problems therefore disappear, but another set of problems remains.

Assume that a woman living under this minimal government belongs to a church that prohibits its members from speaking to men. Now assume that this woman gets assaulted and decides to seek some form of restitution from her assailant. We find that this victim, who has aggressed against nobody, here must make an unenviable choice. She can, on the one hand, call the state police, run the risk of interacting with male police officers, and thereby run the risk of violating her religious beliefs. She can, on the other hand, hire a female co-religionist to drag the assailant to the community’s own “court of law.” If she chooses this latter option, she and the co-religionist, both of whom are initiating a strictly retaliatory use of force, could very well face legal repercussions for subverting the government’s monopoly on violence.

This example shows us that even a bare-bones state, winnowed down to a state’s most basic functions, cannot exist without restricting the non-aggressive exercise of religion. Locke hinted at this reality but made clear that, no matter how fervently he believed in separation, he could not bring himself to endorse a system in which people may “deliver themselves up to the protection and service of another prince. For by this means the magistrate would give way to the settling of a foreign jurisdiction in his own country …”

Though it might be discomfiting at first, we must allow Locke’s dreaded “jurisdictions” to arise. Unalloyed, peaceful religious and philosophical exercise can occur only if people have the freedom to govern themselves. Indeed this means that “the separation of church and state” is impossible without getting rid of coercive states entirely and replacing them with “free and voluntary societ[ies]” that people join as they see fit.

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Posted in Peace
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