Challenging My College Professor: Defending the Libertarian Theory of Justice
I am enrolled in a political science course this summer called Law and Society. It has become clear that my professor is unaware of the libertarian theory of justice. This past week, in response to an essay of mine that briefly outlines the libertarian theory of justice, my professor offered a challenge. Below, I reproduce my professor’s question and my response. References are included at the end.
What on libertarian principle should be done when one ethnic group, African American, feels that it has been collectively wronged by another, non-immigrant whites, and due to slavery and segregation is now entitled to redistribution? Does your theory of justice make no room for social history? Why should the collectively disadvantaged group accept that theory?
My Response: edited for spelling.
Thanks for your comment, Professor.
First, regarding collective harm. In the libertarian view, injustice, or what I have equated with coercion, i.e. the violation of the physical integrity of the property of another, occurs on the individual level. Just as there is no such thing as “group” rights, there is no such thing as “group” wrongs, in the libertarian view. Actual, identifiable individuals are the subject of real harm and coercion, not collectives or groups. Likewise, particular individuals, rather than collectives, are the perpetrators of crime. In both instances it is important to understand that in the libertarian view, only individuals act. Groups and collectives do not themselves act. It is simply an idiomatic way of interpreting certain events to say, e.g. the legislature voted, the gang robbed, and the people chose. What’s actually happening in each of these scenarios, in the libertarian view, is that individuals who share similar associations–e.g. legislators, gang members, voters–each individually act in similar fashions. But it is crucial from a libertarian ontological perspective that it is individuals–and not collectives–who act, suffer coercion, and perpetrate coercion.
With this in mind, it should be noted that the libertarian would criticize the notion that crime is merely a consequence of societal circumstance. No, crimes are perpetrated by particular individuals against particular victims. There are identifiable, guilty, and punishable perpetrators of crime. The collectivist diversion from this libertarian diagnosis, namely that society (and not individuals) is to blame for crimes–and not particular individuals–is problematic. The Oakland population may be better off, if this was understood. In other words, the libertarian would not agree with Mayor Qwan, as you have mentioned Professor, that crime is society’s fault.
[This addresses an accusation made by the professor that the previous Oakland Mayor Qwan viewed crime as a coincidence of societal circumstances, and not as the fault of particular individuals.]
Second, on past crimes. To the libertarian, acts of coercion (crime) are perpetrated by certain individuals against other certain individuals. But it ends there. Individuals today are not punishable for acts they did not commit under the libertarian theory of justice. Yet libertarians do acknowledge the notion of reparation. In short, property rights are traceable through time. This means that the libertarian would support investigation of the generational development of property right claims. In fact, the conclusions that the libertarian would come to may appear even more radical than proposed reparations for blacks to paid by whites. The libertarian would advocate reviewing the claims of the Plains Indians, who were present on the continent, and who homesteaded (the first of the forms of voluntary acquisition of means) [I elaborated the forms of voluntary acquisition of means in an earlier assignment] much of the available land prior to American expansion. Every instance of violent, non-consensual encroachment by the government of the United States on the justly acquired property of the Plains Indians should be reviewed.
It may be important to note here that it was actually the state, which Marx supported and which many Leftists today hale as the solution to centuries of racial oppression, that actually institutionalized and defended the practice of slavery. Slave owners could petition the state to retrieve their runaway slaves. Slaves were sold as a matter of law. Segregation and Jim Crow were themselves creatures of the state. Those seeking a more just view of the history of the African American race in the US may be well to look to libertarianism, which places blame squarely on the state for endorsing and violently defending the institution of slavery.
Before continuing, it may be necessary to confront the myth that the Civil War was fought to free the slaves. This is false. Abraham Lincoln himself was a racist and wished to send all blacks back to Africa. His quotations in his collected works are definitive in this regard.
Third, on social history. History is relevant in the libertarian theory of justice only insofar as it assists in determining where, when, whose, and by whom property rights were violated. No abstract notion of history may be substituted for the libertarian’s direct focus on the violation of rights as the nexus of identifying acts of injustice. However…
Fourth, on why should the disadvantaged accept the libertarian theory of justice. The libertarian theory of justice provides for the most comprehensive, rigorous defense of the disadvantaged against those who would seek to oppress them. There are a number of examples and reasons why.
With the libertarian theory of justice in mind, it is clear that minimum wage laws are unjust. To prevent a prospective employee from accepting a wage voluntarily offered by a prospective employer is unjust in the libertarian analysis. Yet, this is the function of the minimum wage. The libertarian views the minimum wage as a legislative hurdle, oppressing those with low marginal productivity. Why in the world should someone who may very well be disadvantaged be prevented from earning his due, even if it is at a lower rate than what the legislature deems appropriate? Undoubtedly, the disadvantaged individual who desires to work at a wage rate below what the legislature has deemed appropriate is worse off earning no wage, rather than a low wage. How else is the unskilled individual supposed to gain on-the-job training and other work skills if he is not first able to offer his labor services for a lesser price than other competing laborers? Eliminating minimum wage is one proposal that results from the libertarian theory of justice that would uplift the poor and downtrodden, whereas further state action (higher minimum wage) would cement the poor at the bottom of the social structure by literally outlawing their employment.
I’ve mentioned the Drug War before [This is true, I did.]. Legislation associated with the Drug War is a coercive weapon used to beat the poor, unskilled, and disadvantaged into servile, permanent submission. Individuals who have been prevented from entering the labor market (for reasons discussed above) are further penalized for applying entrepreneurial efforts to the drug business. In other words, the disadvantaged are banned from the legitimate labor market by government with forced unemployment laws like minimum wage, and when they resort to the only form of income generation they have left, drug sales, they are further fined, imprisoned, and prohibited from bettering their standard of living. This is a disgrace in the libertarian analysis.
Lastly, those disadvantaged minorities that have been violently oppressed by the state, in size and scope far greater than any private organization could ever hope to achieve, find compatriots in libertarianism. Libertarians would unequivocally side with the minority, victim, disadvantaged populations in the following historical situations: the 500,000+ dead Iraqi children in post-invasion Iraq, the hundreds of thousands of dead Japanese in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the hundreds of thousands of Germans firebombed by American air forces in Dresden after WWII was effectively over, the tens of thousands of Japanese herded into labor camps in the early 1940s, the tens of thousands of Cherokee butchered in Sherman’s March, the millions of Chinese starved in the Great Leap Forward, the tens of millions disappeared in Soviet pogroms and purges, and so forth. Unfortunately, violations of the libertarian theory of justice are too many to list.
I hope I’ve answered your question.
On the ontological distinction that only individuals (and not collectives) act, see page two of Dr. Murray Rothbard’s Man, Economy, and State: https://mises.org/library/man-economy-and-state-power-and-market
On the libertarian theory of reparations, see Dr. Walter Block’s Springer Science article: http://www.academia.edu/1425345/Reparations_Once_Again SSRN: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1881062
On Lincoln’s racism, quotations from his collected works, see Dr. Thomas Dilorenzo: https://www.lewrockwell.com/2014/08/thomas-dilorenzo/lincolns-racial-views/
On how minimum wage makes the poor and downtrodden worse off, see Dr. George Reisman: https://mises.org/library/how-minimum-wage-laws-increase-poverty
On the destructive nature of the state (which embodies the opposite of the libertarian theory of justice), see Dr. Robert Higgs’s talk, “The State is Too Dangerous to Tolerate:” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RILDjo4EXV8