Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Racial Justice and Libertarianism

There have been a couple interesting posts by Bryan Caplan and one by David Henderson recently on racial justice issues that I wanted to call attention to.

The first is a series of three posts on libertarianism and Jim Crow (here, here, and here). Bryan starts off by asking about libertarian positions on Jim Crow at the time. He links to Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard. Rand discusses racism as a form of collectivism. Like a lot of Rand, she has a point and then gets distracted by her own excesses (various versions of being proud of your family history "are samples of racism", for example). Rothbard's piece is more interesting. He presents the standard, half-right libertarian formula that segregation is bad but integration is bad too. He calls public efforts "compulsory integration" to drive home the point. But that's largely in the background. Most of Rothbard's chapter discusses the Civil Rights movement itself, the various factions within it, and the probable future course of the movement. This is what we've been hearing from Ron and Rand Paul recently as well - and it doesn't just apply to the Civil Rights movement. It's the old line that slavery was bad but so was Lincoln (I have some scattered critiques of Lincoln, but I don't approve of this advocacy of opposition to the Civil Rights Act or the prosecution of the Civil War).

All of this is rooted in a twisted application of the non-aggression principle that only sees certain aggressions as actually aggressive. This strain of libertarianism ignores institutional discrimination, and it ignores the intergenerational transmission of past crimes. It also ignores cases where people are coerced by virtue of the property rights system (i.e. - involuntary impositions through negative externalities). When you start to think how long the list is, it becomes quite clear that Rothbard isn't really pro-liberty so much as he is anti-state. Libertarianism, in Rothbard's sense, is better thought of as Antistatarianism. Whatever the state does - whether it is pro-liberty or anti-liberty - is not considered acceptable. Anarchism, if you will. Obviously this doesn't characterize all libertarians - but I do think it's important to clarify that all libertarians (Rothbardians/anarchists or not) distinguish themselves more on the question of the state than on the question of liberty.

David Henderson follows up on Bryan's post with his own on Milton Friedman and segregation. Friedman takes the same position as Rothbard. Indeed, Henderson shares that Friedman considered Nazi anti-Semitic legislation, Jim Crow, and Civil Rights legislation to all be "similar in principle" to each other. Henderson says Friedman is right, but I think it's utter nonsense. Again, this is the sort of thing that you get when you confuse being pro-liberty with being anti-state. It's true, opposition to the Nuremberg Laws, Jim Crow, and Civil Rigths legislation is all consistently anti-state. But the distinction between the first wo and the last one is that the last one is pro-liberty. Milton Friedman is following the Rothbard/Rand line of argument, and it's leading him down a very problematic path.

In the third link, Bryan shares Ilya Somin's thoughts. Somin discusses Moorfield Storey and W.H. Hutt. I found the article on Storey very confusing. I have no idea why he is supposed to be a libertarian. The article presents a couple points: (1.) Storey was an anti-imperialist (not just a libertarian thing), (2.) Storey was a goldbug (many libertarians aren't), (3.) Storey was anti-segregation (not just a libertarian thing), and (4.) Storey thought blacks had a right to property and economic liberty (not just a libertarian thing). Storey may very well have been a libertarian, I'm just not clear on whether he was or not. The article framed it as Storey the libertarian vs. left-liberals and I just found a lot of the discussion confused. Still, he sounds like an admirable guy.

Somin additionally shares Hutt's book on the subject, which I am not personally familiar with. Hutt, of course, is South African and so he has a lot of experience to draw on in addition to his familiarity with the American case. The book as framed as being about the economics of discrimination. That is intriguing to me. Can anyone provide a synopsis of the economic argument that's made in the book?


I also wanted to quickly discuss Bryan's post on whether we should give land back to the Indians. He also cites Rothbard extensively in this one. Rothbard essentially highlights the fact that the title chain to American land is very unclear. Even if you knew a particular parcel of land was stolen on a particular date, the lack of title and inheritance records means that no white (or other) owner of a piece of American land today has any victim they can compensate by returning the land.

This is an excellent example of points that Gene Callahan has made in the past about the coercions of different understandings of legitimate property rights. Indians didn't have titles or inheritance records because they didn't have the same system of property rights that we do today. The issue we're dealing with is quite akin to the enclosure movement in England. It would be like subsequent landowners dismissing complaints because those who used the common land can't show that they have title to the land. Of course they can't show that! The whole point was that it was not a private property right system!

Once again, as above, Rothbard shows that he is not really pro-liberty at all. He is pro-the-maintenance-of-a-very-specific-property-rights-regime. So he is antistatarian and propertarian, but not especially (or shall we say, not uniquely) pro-liberty.

I consider the Indian issue to be a very hard case. Enclosing the commons is form of social organization that to a large extent I support (I'm not saying that all commons ought to be enclosed). But I'm not like Rothbard in that I do recognize that you are dismissing someone's rights. Compensation, I think, is reasonable. I would certainly support substantial federal investments in Indian communities. I think it would probably make the most sense to have a sort of block grant scheme. There's a big concern (among some) about changing the way they live on reservations. Flexibility in the investments helps those sorts of decisions to be made at the local level.

But I don't apply this universally. I'm a lot more concerned about Indians in the West than I am in the East. In the East you have to remember that a huge portion of Indian lands were obtained as a result of the French and Indian War. The Indians were willing (indeed, eager) French allies in that war. When we (we, in this case and at this point being "the British") beat the French, we got Canada from them. The French lost their rights when they lost the fight. Why should we treat the trans-Appalachian territories any differently? Why must we feel obligated to give Ohio back to the Indians but we don't feel obligated to give Canada back to the French? Not only did we win the war in both cases, but the French and the Indians were fighting the same damn war on the same damn side! It's a subtle form of ethnocentrism to shed tears over the land lost in the trans-Appalachian territories but not over the loss of French territory in Canada.

I am not as well versed in Western history, but my impression is the situation there was very different and it was more straight theft.

I feel the same way about reparations for slavery, by the way. The idea that the black community today isn't experiencing disparities resulting from slavery and Jim Crow is nonsense. Failure to right these wrongs comes close to complicity in the wrongs.


  1. It sounds to me like "pro liberty" means "things Daniel Kuehn supports." I'm guessing you will disagree with that assessment.

    1. I would imagine the list is contested, if that's all you mean. Sure. And I don't think I'd jump on anyone as being not pro-liberty because their list differs a little. I wouldn't call Rothbard not pro-liberty even though his list differs substantially in a lot of cases.

      But I think it's important to put aside "pro liberty" for a second. The really crucial point is that "anti-state" and "pro-liberty" are two very different things, and pretending their not really begs the question. If the common denominator in each case is opposition to state action, let's just call it what it is. It really doesn't matter what's pro-liberty or not - what matters is whether it is anti-state.

    2. In that context of that last comment I should clarify one sentence in the post, where I say that Rothbard isn't really pro-liberty so much as he is anti-state.

      I would challenge how pro-liberty he really is because of the problems I raise. I'd push him on that stuff. But really the point is that he isn't distinguishing himself as being pro-liberty so much as he is distinguishing himself as being anti-state. Libertarians are in the liberal tradition, I wouldn't deny that.

  2. Implicit in the argument over giving land back to the Indians is the idea that if A unjustly takes land from B, then A and A's heirs have the right to demand the land back from B and B's heirs throughout all eternity.

    As an attorney, this idea strikes me as plain weird, and certainly not the way our legal system operates. In Anglo-American law there is the doctrine of adverse possession, which says that if you hold land for a certain length of time (usually 20 years), then it is yours, regardless of whether you had legally acquired it in the first place. That seems perfectly sensible, and doesn't even seem to contradict Locke's notion of how the right to land is acquired and maintained.

    1. I think that's a perfectly reasonable legal solution. It's hard to imagine these sorts of injustices could be solved by an appeal to the courts, particularly because of the whole point that the very problem is an incomensurability between the two legal and property regimes!

      But surely we don't want to just look at this from a legal perspective. From an economic and a policy perspective it still seems reasonable to say that it's an injustice and there are viable actions to take.

    2. Daniel, I think the only way to approach the issue if from the legal perspective sense the whole issue began from an economic/policy perspective. How does one exactly solve this issue from the policy/economic perspective without taking from A’s heirs and giving to B’s heirs? If this is the case than it’s the same as A unjustly taking land from B. How does one solve the problem of justly/unjustly taking something without considering the legal perspective?

      The question (if my argument stands) is from my first sentence is the idea A unjustly taking land from B begin from the economic/policy perspective? And if it did the only solution is a legal one.

    3. Well yes, it would be taking from A's heirs to give to B's heirs. That's the whole point! I don't see how that's the same though.

      I have advantages today over my next door neighbor, who is black, because when he was a kid he went to segregated schools and his parents and grandparents couldn't make the investments in him that mine could in me. I enjoy advantages and he suffers disadvantages today because of a past injustice. It's not the only situation where that sort of thing happens, but in America it's an important one.

      I involuntarily benefited and he involuntarily suffered from a past action (in this case, an injustice). Why would it be wrong to set policies in place to balance that?

      Justice and legality are two quite different things. I think you're confusing the two.

      I'm not sure it entirely makes sense to burden the legal system with all these tasks.

    4. I was thinking more along the lines of the extremes instead of a balancing issue. A takes all from B, Bh takes all from Ah. I see what you are saying by a balancing out the issue.

    5. Also Daniel, I don’t think it is as clear cut of an issue (white/black) you make it out to be (assuming your white and your neighbor black), in that you now have to consider all shades of gray in-between (where I belong). I certainly “involuntarily suffered from a past action” (an injustice), would I be entitled to the balanced policy? Where does one draw the boundary on this issue is an important question.

  3. Dan,

    What kind of viable actions do you have in mind?

    1. In the case of the Indians, I think it would be very reasonable to appropriate a big chunk of cash (off the top of my head I have no idea what would make sense), and either distribute it to states in block grants according to the native population or distribute it to tribes for investments in education, infrastructure, cultural expenditures, or any number of other investments. I'd define a broad set of uses and leave implementation to local communities. As I noted, some tribes aren't going to want us going on the reservation and building a bunch of stuff. I wouldn't want to paint anyone into a corner in that sense.

      I do think we ought to just say that it was good to largely enclose the commons of North America, and we don't want to change that. To property regimes clashed, and a valuable regime won. But there are very straightforward ways to connect the dots between that appropriation back then and the severe Native poverty rates today, and do something serious about it.

      This is not a big population - it would not be a massive budget item to get a lot of good done.

      I'm just shooting from the hip. I imagine we have a lot we could learn from Canada in this regard.

    2. 1. It is very hard for me to reconcile your thinking with that of any libertarian

      2. Do we get a credit or set off for all the fun the Plains Indians had after the Spanish introduced the horse?

      3. I suppose that when it comes to Slavery you advocate that all the reparations should be paid by the Africans who captured and sold Africans into slavery in the first place.

      4. The point of points 2 and 3 is to illustrate that looking at the past is not a guide for what we should do now about the future because when you peel away the layers often there is no fundamental injustice. Native Americans, in my view, have only themselves to blame. They took the horse, which transformed their plains tribes much to the worse. They had more than ample opportunity to adopt and learn. It is supposed to be our fault, now, that earlier they didn't choose education when they had the opportunity to maximize such to their advantage?

    3. 1. There's a good reason for that. I'm not a libertarian.

      2. Yes. I'm not saying the Western Indians were never aggressors. I'm just saying my understanding is that the story of the West was more a story of the white man rolling in and taking things than the story of the East was. Since these are made up numbers anyway "crediting" isn't going to amount to much in practice, of course - but in theory yes I think so.

      3. That would be nice but I'm not sure we have jurisdiction. Yes, I agree - Europeans are probably the only problem, they're not even the start of the problem, and the North American Europeans were hardly even the worst offenders. I acknowledge all of that. Just because West Africa and the Brazil can't get it's act together in righting wrongs doesn't mean we have to sit idly by.

      4. Is far too strong. As my answers to 2. and 3. suggest, I understand that the past is a complicated place. Nothing in this post was meant to suggest otherwise. This is a step in the right direction, not some kind of magical way to make every injustice right.

      This is really a broad-stroke kind of suggestion that I think would be closer to optimal than we currently are. I wouldn't try to read it as being any more than that.

  4. I have not read Rothbard, but reading Caplan's piece on the matter, Rothbard does not appear to lack recognition that somebody's property rights were violated. He's simply saying that while plenty of evidence remains that property rights violations were widespread, time has erased the evidence of specific property rights violations which therefore cannot be remedied.

    I think the property rights framework used by the Native Americans does lend itself to collective compensation. (my understanding is that Native American tribes could be compared to incorporated clubs which independently own some property and make it available to members) The problem is where the compensation is supposed to come from. I'm a recent immigrant here. It can hardly be argued that I bear some sort of responsibility for things done years before I was born on a continent different from the one where my ascendants lived at the time. Yet, your plan to have tax-payers foot that bill seems to imply that taxpayers bear some sort of collective responsibility.

    1. I agree - the concern is the unclear title chains. But part of the lack of clarity is the point that it wasn't recognized property in the sense that our property rights regime acknowledges.

      Half my family came here before the case, half after. No one in my family directly benefited from appropriations from Indians in the West.

      All of us are indirect beneficiaries, though. We all benefit from the investments that were made from the appropriation of the West. If you are looking for an exact accounting of the benefits and the costs, of course that will not happen. But I don't think it's crazy to propose a general taxation for it. If the costs weren't as concentrated as they are it might be different.

      Think of it this way - you paying a couple bucks out of your tax bill might impose a cost on you unfairly to provide a benefit that the Indians deserve. I'm willing to concede that. But taken altogether such a scheme would be closer to a just outcome than the situation where the Indians remain uncompensated. The fact that all of us gain indirectly benefit from the appropriation of the West only solidifies the case.

    2. I'm not quite as radical as most libertarians and so I'm not adverse to some people suffering a little injustice in order to rectify a greater injustice. So if you want to take a couple $ from my tax bill to pay some sort of compensation to Indian tribes, that seems acceptable. But I'm not entirely sure that is quite the way to think about it. The United States has had LOTS of immigrants since that original sin and so taxing all those people might be a greater injustice in the end. (especially when you start tagging on African Americans, and other groups that were disenfranchised and therefore didn't get a whole lot out of the Native American land grabs.) I'm not sure which way the scales tip.

      On the issue of the benefits of investments, I am not sure you are correct. The counter-factual is of course impossible to check, but had the Native American tribes not been dispossessed, it seems likely they would have either developed their land or sold it to others who would have developed it. It might have taken longer and therefore, the benefits might be lesser, but then again, the fighting to take the land must have consumed some capital.

    3. "I agree - the concern is the unclear title chains. But part of the lack of clarity is the point that it wasn't recognized property in the sense that our property rights regime acknowledges."

      Just to reinforce this point.... You mention English common land. Most of that was stolen, in medieval times during a war or afterwards a lord would be awarded a piece of land by the King from the lands of those who lost. Lords would make commons within that land.

      You can't sensibly point at one injustice, such as enclosure, without looking at all of them. What about the Angles, Saxons and Normans pushing out the Celtic people to Ireland, Scotland and Wales? Should we English be paying reparations for that? Should the Danish pay reparations for all the raiding the Vikings did?

    4. Disparities between whites and blacks and disparities between whites and Indians are all derived to a large degree from more far more recent injustices, and they are easily identified today.

      If you can distinguish between Angles, Saxons, Normans, and Celts and observe a persistent difference as a reasonable result of past injustice, it seems like there's probably something worth doing about it.

      I'm only mentioning the enclosure movement here to highlight the fact that we had two types of property rights that clashed. If a peasant at that time had an interest in stopping enclosure, they couldn't very well do it by presenting a title to the land in the courts. That's the whole point of a commons after all! Likewise, it seems odd to reject the Indians' claim because of unclear title because they weren't even operating under our property rights system.

    5. You want to miss the point by introducing a reductio? I can do that too. How about this: why should the police give property back that they seize through civil forfeiture? After all, it's not the ONLY injustice. You can't focus just on the civil forfeiture of the police unless you go back to the Angles and the Normans and the Celts!

      It's ridiculous Current - it doesn't work. The presence of other injustices doesn't make addressing one injustice off limits!

      What makes Indians and blacks worth talking about and Angles and Normans not?

      The case with Indians and blacks is recent (for blacks, the direct injustice extends into the lifetime of living members of society), and the population is distinct enough that the disparities they experience are readily identifiable. Three hundred years from now if we were just a multiethnic melting pot I doubt I'd be making these claims.

      That's the situation in the UK with the Angles and the Normans and the Celts. That's not the situation here.

  5. Dan,

    We've already given the tribes quite a bit of money. I don't think it's helped. Frankly the best thing to do would be to get rid of the reservations altogether, though for political reasons that's unlikely to happen.

  6. I don't think backward-looking justice does much good. The justification for helping American Indian or African-American communities should be their current poverty and lack of opportunity, not the path that got them there. Neither should current communities that lack opportunity but were on the right side of some historical event be excluded from consideration of policy that opens opportunity.

    That Asian-Americans make 10% more/capita than Caucasians, but *would* have made 20% more than Caucasians had US policy not been so awful to Chinese immigrants and Japanese-Americans, does not really persuade me that Caucasians as a class should compensate Asian-Americans as a class, especially since some of that burden would fall on people who I would rather see on the positive side of the policy ledger (young West Virginians?).

    Perhaps I'm being too Coasean, but I find arguments of easing future suffering more compelling arguments for policy than 'righting past wrongs.' If you had to choose between improving the incomes of a hispanic community from $20,000 to $25,000 or improving that of an African American community's from $25,000 to $30,000, which would you choose? I'd go for the former (and maybe that makes me complicit in slavery and Jim Crow?).

    I think a hallmark of a liberal society is judging people based on who they are, not where they have come from. I find things like the Daughters of the American Revolution very uncomfortable and illiberal, because they insist that you be descended from someone involved in the Revolution. If African-Americans, today, are poorer because of slavery and Jim Crow (something I do not doubt, just as I do not doubt that US policy has greatly impoverished American Indians), policies helping them should be justified by the fact that it will improve their lives from their current baseline, rather than justifying it by saying it would have been higher had past injustice not been done.

    (On the other hand, I think it's very important to keep tabs on these issues *now* in places where common property is being converted to private property, as not to repeat the American experience.)

    1. I don't understand the "who you are" and "where you've come from" distinction? It sounds nice, but I don't see how where you come from isn't part of who you are.

      Except in the case of Indians (who have distinct tribal sovereignty that make this easier), I don't envision some kind of mass transfer on the basis of race. A lot of this would have to be implemented as a general anti-poverty scheme, but I think it can be strongly justified by the argument that a lot of modern poverty is the result of past injustice. Does that make sense?

      But if we could target to a particular race and not feel uncomfortable about it (and I think in practice both of us would feel uncomfortable about that), I think there's a decent case for moving the black family from 25K to 30K over the Hispanic family from 20K to 25K. If you think about why each family is in the position it is in, the Hispanic family is probably largely due to the new start from immigration (depends on what part of the country we're talking about, of course - some are more established). That's not an injustice. When my family got off the boat they were poorer than their neighbors too. That disparity evaporates, and it's not really rooted in an injustice anyway.

      If there is a secular disparity facing blacks (which there is) that we think has its roots not just in slavery, but in Jim Crow during the lives of people living today, that 5K gap from 25K to 30K may be, from a justice standpoint, more disconcerting.

      The fact that implementation of slavery reparations probably wouldn't be race specific doesn't mean there can't be some targeting.

      Affirmative action is easier than simply transferring money (ie - its much easier to say that you can think about the diversity of your organization in making individual hiring decisions), so that could really target race groups. Further investment in HBCUs is great. That covers a non-trivial chunk of black college grads. We could imagine regional targeting like voting rights laws that Southern states have to abide by. And extending the affirmative action point, we can think about primary and secondary school districting and revenue sharing that consciously takes race into account.

      As far as money transfers, its much harder to say "you get this check if you're black", but you can certainly have grant programs that have one of their stated goals as serving minority communities, or massive anti-poverty efforts that are advocated on the grounds of righting a litany of past wrongs (even if the recipients are mixed).

      The broader point for me is to recognize that that equality of opportunity and equality of outcomes are a very mixed proposition. One generation's outcomes are the next generation's opportunities. If we are serious about equalizing opportunities we need to explicitly recognize this and think about the injustices of the past that are causing disparities today.

    2. Let's say you believe that 70% of the disparity between African-Americans and White-Americans is due to injustice--slavery and Jim Crow--and the other 30% due to other factors.

      You conduct a study that shows that technical improvements in farming led to a mass African-American (and other) exodus to the city, while almost within the same generation there's mass deurbanization of industry that creates social distance between the migrants and economic opportunity. Maybe you find a data set that shows that Whites who moved from the country to the city due to technological change in farming have almost the same income disparity as African-Americans do. You update your beliefs, 80% of the disparity is due to being caught in the wake of massive social and technical forces beyond their control (but not necessarily unjust to them) and 20% is due to explicit injustice.

      Do your updated beliefs weaken your support for affirmative action programs?

      I think the 'where people came from' answer is: yes, you should support less affirmative action. The 'who people are' answer is: no, the cause of the social distance to economic opportunity is irrelevant, what matters is bringing people close to economic opportunity. I think the second answer is what a liberal should argue--though maybe we disagree on this point.

      I think that ignoring the righting-past-wrongs aspect of a policy makes the arguments in favor of it stronger. It is easier to argue that some communities are socially further from economic opportunity than others, and that a specific policy can bring the community closer to opportunity, than to argue that a policy corrects an imbalance in the scale of historic, cosmic justice. It also helps justify bringing communities that are socially distant from economic opportunity closer to it, even if the reason for the distance is not past injustice. If affirmative action can help close the social distance between African-American communities and economic opportunity, it should do the same for, say, refugee or immigrant groups that become insular. There's little argument to support such a policy on historical justice grounds, but quite a bit to support the argument on forward looking social-justice grounds.

  7. The central problem with DK's analysis of almost everything is that the problem which has always plagued mankind is assaultive, violent behavior: murder, rape, theft, enslavement, genocide and pillage, not a "lack of aggregate demand" or racism in the market. The strict application of Rothbardian private property principles solves that problem. We already have a marvelous, working system of the English common law notions of private property, contracts and self ownership which require only a tweaking under the Rothbardian system.

    The various Keynesian and "progressive" policy proposals violently violate these well known principles of private property, contract and self ownership based upon phony and false narratives. The market does not tend toward monopoly. The market does not tend toward depression and mass unemployment. The market does not tend toward mass discrimination against minorities. Monopoly, mass unemployment and mass discrimination against minorities is all caused by government interference in the market. Common law principles are routinely violated to solve problems that do not even exist.

    Further, it is a long-held position of libertarians that once the common law protections against the violation of property, contract and self ownership have been breached, almost any interference in the market can and will be justified as "rational" and for the "public good" no matter how horrific. Even the worse cases of rent seeking are justified this way and the courts now always defer to the "wisdom" of the legislature.

    Even worse, in a plural society made up of various different ethnic groups and lots of public goods, elections will tend to be decided based almost solely upon ethnic lines, with the largest ethnic group winning the election and, by controlling the government, essentially owning the entire national economy. The Road to Rwanda, so to speak. See "POLITICS IN PLURAL SOCIETIES A Theory of Democratic Instability" by ALVIN RABUSHKA AND KENNETH A. SHEPSLE, a free but 12 mb pdf file.


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