Return of Stolen Property: A Libertarian Case for Reparations

December 18, 2019 Updated: December 23, 2019


All the leading candidates for the Democratic nomination for president in 2020 call for reparations to blacks from whites for the crime of slavery.

High-profile conservatives reject this claim.

Thomas Sowell dismisses it as fraudulent: “However, seen as a source of a lasting unmet grievance, it is a stroke of genius to keep blacks separated from other Americans and an aggrieved constituency to support black ‘leaders’ in politics, organizations and movements.”

Walter E. Williams also strongly opposes any such initiative: “So which white Americans owe which black Americans how much? Reparations advocates don’t want that question asked, but let’s you and I ask it. Are the millions of European, Asian and Latin Americans who immigrated to the U.S. in the 20th century responsible for slavery? What about descendants of Northern whites who fought and died in the War of 1861 in the name of freeing slaves? Should they cough up money for black Americans? What about non-slave-owning Southern whites, who were a majority of Southern whites—should their descendants be made to pay reparations?

“On black people’s side of the ledger, thorny questions arise. Some blacks purchased other blacks as a means to free family members. But other blacks owned slaves for the same reason whites owned slaves—to work farms or plantations. Would descendants of these blacks be eligible for reparations?”

Williams allows that “[justice] would demand that slave owners make compensatory payments to slaves.”

“Since both slaves and slave owners are no longer with us, such punishment and compensation is beyond our reach,” he said.

Both sides in this debate are mistaken. The right-wingers make telling points against the extreme left-wing position that all whites owe all blacks a debt, but they erroneously conclude that therefore, no whites owe any compensation to any blacks at all.

Suppose my grandfather stole a watch from your grandfather. He gave it to his son, my dad, and I inherited it from him. Do I or do I not owe this watch to you? Of course I do. Now, to be sure, the burden of proof rests with you. Possession is properly nine-tenths of the law, and I am now the owner of this timepiece. But if you can prove it was stolen from your grandfather (let us say you have a picture of him wearing it as a young man before my grandfather was even born), then justice would demand that I turn it over to you.

From an economic point of view, slavery consisted of labor theft (of course, it was much worse than that, but it certainly included this phenomenon). In 1865, slave owners should have been found guilty of the crime of aggravated kidnapping. Poetic justice would have called for them to be enslaved to their new ex-slaves, and all their property turned over to their victims. (If ever it was needed, the Nuremberg Trials established the libertarian principle that ex post facto punishment is justified.)

These despicable villains are now of course beyond the reach of justice, as per Williams. But they bequeathed land, buildings, and farm animals to their children. There are now white folk who own plantations all through the South, and some farms in the North. They are now in illicit possession of this wealth. They didn’t build it; they didn’t homestead it. They never should have been given this property in the first place.

Rather, the grandparents of now-living black people carved this acreage out of the wilderness; their “blood, sweat, and tears” established these properties. It is they who should have received this property in 1865.

This is where that “forty acres and a mule” comes from; it is a rough approximation of justice. The white great-grandchildren who now own these properties are not themselves thieves, but they are now in possession of stolen property, land stolen from (that is, not given to) black people, more than a century ago.

If I am required to return to you the wristwatch my grandfather stole from yours, and I most certainly am, then there are hundreds of thousands if not millions of black great-grandchildren who are entitled to land and capital equipment now owned illegitimately by the descendants of white slave owners.

Sowell and Williams are correct to criticize the extreme demands made by leading Democrats. All whites are not in possession of property they never should have received in the first place and that properly belonged to the black ex-slaves. But some are. Sowell and Williams deduce invalidly from their correct premises to the erroneous conclusion that no whites owe any blacks anything. Some do, maybe even many do, if justice is to prevail.

Nor are all black people, at present, entitled to any reparations at all. Some of them are new entrants to our country. The parents of others immigrated to the United States long after 1865. Nor, even, are the progeny of slaves entitled to one thin dime, if they cannot demonstrate, prove, that their great-grandfathers had their labor stolen from them on a specific plantation. Reparations, libertarian-style, are not an open-sesame kind of operation.

They are justified, only, on the grounds of return of stolen property. If a would-be claimant cannot meet this burden of proof, he’s not entitled to receive any compensation.

Nor are all whites now in possession of property to which they are not entitled. Only some of them, a few of them, are guilty of owning land stolen in effect from others.

How shall the actual reparations work? Suppose Mr. Smith, a black person now living in Harlem, can prove that his great-grandparent labored on a plantation located in Louisiana. There were 50 slaves on that estate. It comprises 500 acres, now occupied by Mr. Jones, great-grandchild of the owner of Grandpa Smith. Well, then, 10 of those acres should be transferred from Jones to Smith. Period.

Taxation would not come into play in this libertarian vision. Nor would welfare, affirmative action, or attempts to equalize black and white wealth. All such considerations are beside the point at issue: return of stolen property.

Walter Block is the chair in economics at Loyola University in New Orleans. He is also an adjunct scholar at the Mises Institute and the Hoover Institute.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.