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Legacies of Injustice and Racial Inequality

This article is a revised version of a talk given at the Oxford University Mises Society on January 16, 2024. The talk drew upon themes discussed in David Gordon and Wanjiru Njoya, Redressing Historical Injustice: Self-Ownership, Property Rights and Economic Equality (Palgrave Macmillan, 2023).

Supporters of free market capitalism are often thought, wrongly, to be unconcerned about human well-being. On the contrary, it is precisely because we are concerned about human well-being that we promote free markets, productivity, and peaceful exchange—a point powerfully made by Ludwig von Mises in Liberalism: In The Classical Tradition:

That there is want and misery in the world is not, as the average newspaper reader, in his dullness, is only too prone to believe, an argument against liberalism. It is precisely want and misery that liberalism seeks to abolish, and it considers the means that it proposes the only suitable ones for the achievement of this end.

In contemporary debates about racial inequality, supporters of free markets contend that people of all races thrive in free markets, which are in turn dependent upon individual liberty and the protection of private property. Thus, progressives who dismantle property rights in an attempt to promote the welfare of disadvantaged racial groups undermine their own goals by dismantling the only effective path to progress.

The idea that property rights are an impediment to human progress derives partly from a failure to understand the causes of economic inequality. In discussing economic inequality, questions of causation do not trouble egalitarians, socialists, and communists, who invent wild schemes that they claim will fix inequality. Yet the causes of economic outcomes, of course, matter. Ultimately, the racial injustice debates draw upon redistributive concepts of justice that treat economic inequality as presumptively unjust with no attempt to ascertain the causes of that inequality. Political demands for wealth redistribution and racial “equity,” although couched in the language of justice, are in fact incompatible with true justice.

Property Rights and Racial Injustice

Claims concerning racial injustice take many forms. Key among them are claims for wealth redistribution, racial preferences in allocation of tax spending, reparations, and—even in extreme cases—abolishing property rights. Such schemes, which normally parade under the label of “equity,” are incompatible with property rights. The rationale behind these types of wealth transfers is that they are necessary in the public interest—namely, the promotion of racial equality. A particularly egregious example is South Africa’s Expropriation Bill under which it is sought to seize private property without compensation: “Local, provincial and national authorities will use this legislation to expropriate land in the public interest for varied reasons that seek to amongst others, promote inclusivity and access to natural resources.”

The argument behind such policies is that social values such as equity and inclusivity require the restriction or abolition of property rights. The rationale is that, in promoting justice, it is necessary in such situations to abrogate private property rights.

However, property rights are not an impediment or obstacle to achieving justice. As Robert Nozick observes in Anarchy, State, and Utopia, the defense of private property does not stand in the way of legal redress in cases of stolen property: “Returning stolen money or compensating for violations of rights are not redistributive reasons.” Claims for return of stolen property, where theft can be proved, raise questions of fact that should be decided at the outset: whether the property claimed to have been stolen was in fact stolen.

Quite obviously, theft must be proved with objectively verifiable evidence and not merely asserted. However, once proved, the stolen property must be returned or compensated for. That is entirely consistent with property rights—the true owner, upon proof of his case, is entitled to get his property back. On this basis, the owners of Bruce’s Beach had their property returned by the State of California:

Bruce’s Beach was purchased in 1912 to create a beach resort for black people at a time of racial segregation in southern California.

Located in the desirable city of Manhattan Beach, it was forcibly taken by the local council [under eminent domain laws] in 1924.

But on Tuesday, Los Angeles officials voted to return the land to the family.

The objection to wealth redistribution concerns cases where wealth transfers between different racial groups are proposed based purely on the existence of wealth disparities between races. No specified thief or victim is identified as the claim is purely couched in the language of historical racial domination and subordination. As William Shaw argues in the context of Africa, a historical claim to land title based on legal and archaeological evidence is quite different from a claim based purely on membership of a racial group said to have inhabited the land centuries ago. Amorphous “you stole our land” pronouncements cannot be used to justify black people stealing farms from white farmers. The notion of justice plainly cannot be used to justify theft.

On the contrary, justice is predicated on the right of a property owner to defend his life, his home, and his property. In the terminology of human rights, classical liberals would say that property rights are human rights, and to that we might add that there are no human rights that are not also property rights as Murray Rothbard argues in The Ethics of Liberty:

For not only are there no human rights which are not also property rights, but the former rights lose their absoluteness and clarity and become fuzzy and vulnerable when property rights are not used as the standard . . . human rights, when not put in terms of property rights, turn out to be vague and contradictory, causing liberals to weaken those rights on behalf of “public policy” or the “public good.”

The Causes of Inequality

It is often claimed that economic outcomes and wealth disparities between racial groups are caused by legacies of oppression or generational trauma from decades or centuries past and that wealth disparities between racial groups are attributable to these historical events. The argument is that the actions and life experiences of people today are constrained and determined by injustices suffered by their ancestors. On that basis, the case for reparations claims that any disparities—any “economic gap” between different groups, communities, or nations—is caused by past injustice and is presumptive evidence of legacies of that injustice. Wealth transfers designed to close economic gaps are therefore said to be the best or indeed the only way to remedy past injustice and their resulting legacies.

Often these claims about causation are very loosely framed: it is essentially said that the occurrence of historical events explains why people are now poor, in that oppressed people have never managed to escape their chains. The old forms of oppression are said to remain, having evolved into new invisible forms of oppression: “Instead of vanishing, the disadvantages confronting black Americans simply morphed.”

Such claims are generally constructed upon a set of causal relations, the validity of which is taken by critical race theories to be self-evident and thus not to require further exposition or substantiation. Critical race theories in this context rely on a set of interlinked presumptions. The first presumption relates to a causal connection between historical injustice and contemporary discrimination. Building on that, the second presumption relates to a causal connection between contemporary discrimination and economic outcomes. Unequal outcomes are said by critical race theorists to be a legacy of the exploitative relationship between historical “oppressors” and the historically “oppressed.” In addition, critical race theories assert that contemporary discrimination is “systemic” in nature, so that systemic racism is said to be manifest not in specified individual conduct or particular individual life experiences but in the very systems on which society in general is constructed, such as the legal system or the criminal justice system.

Based on those causal presumptions, critical race theorists construct their solution to economic inequality: they assert that paying for historical crimes would resolve the historical injustice, would thereby help to “end discrimination,” which they would in turn expect to yield equal outcomes for all racial groups. So far as wealth and income are not proportionately distributed between different racial groups—that is, so far as equal outcomes do not emerge—they take that as evidence that MORE redistribution needs to be done: “We need to equity harder.”

It is said that there is nothing black people can do to improve their conditions: after all, the causes are systemic and not individual so nothing the individual can do will change that. The economic system as a whole would need to be reformed. The prognosis is dire: “Unless current economics change, black families will be poorer on the 175th anniversary of Emancipation than they were in 1980.”

The idea that the causes of economic inequality can be traced back to historical events fails to take causation seriously. Without correctly identifying the causes of a phenomenon, it is impossible to understand it or evaluate it, nor can any problems be resolved when their causes are incorrectly identified. This is the task to which libertarian and classical liberal economists like Peter Bauer, Robert Higgs, Walter Williams, and Thomas Sowell have devoted much attention.

This inattention to the causes of inequality derives partly from the assumption that inequality is unjust. From a classical liberal perspective, justice means to give each man his own. Justice does not require that everyone must have equal amounts of wealth or equal life experiences. In “Enforced Equality—Or Justice?,” Antony Flew explains that justice in the classical sense is not synonymous with equality of condition or equality of outcome. It follows that the absence of equal conditions is not in itself unjust, but rather, account must be taken of how the inequality is manifest and what has caused that inequality. Flew is therefore critical of arguments that presume justice and equality to be synonymous so that they make no attempt to explain why inequality should automatically be treated as an injustice. Flew’s argument is that justice properly understood neither promises nor requires equal distribution of wealth or fortune.

The same analysis applies to the concept of “equal opportunities,” which is promoted by liberals who never pause to consider what is meant by opportunity, how they propose to equalize everyone’s opportunities, and by what test or measure they would ascertain to their satisfaction that everyone’s opportunities are equal. Eradicating want and deprivation as well as promoting human well-being and prosperity for all people regardless of race, sex, or other identity characteristics is not dependent on opportunities being equal. While helping the poor is to be lauded, “helping the poor and leveling income differ entirely as goals.”

One could say, for example, that every child should have the opportunity to acquire a good start in life, a good education, good health, the opportunity to live a happy life, and realization of his or her full potential. However, that is not the same thing as saying the opportunities of all children must be equal. The opportunities of children in different families are not equal because families are not equal. Does someone from a stable, happy home have an “equal opportunity” to do as well in a test as someone from a dysfunctional and chaotic home? To call their opportunities equal would be to stretch words beyond credibility.

Even the opportunities of children in the same family are not equal because their talents and personalities and interests differ and will influence their life opportunities. For example, the opportunity to be a concert pianist is not equal between the talented and the untalented pianist. Indeed as Thomas Sowell puts it, “Nobody is equal to anybody. Even the same man is not equal to himself on different days.” Inequality of wealth, fortune, talent, or opportunity is inherent in the human condition, despite the claims of those who wish to rail against nature. The sinister activists behind equalization schemes therefore find themselves destroying and dismantling social institutions, including the family, which they see as a hotbed of unequal opportunities. Ultimately, when they inevitably find themselves unable to equalize everyone’s opportunities, they are driven in frustration and desperation to begin equalizing outcomes as seen in the examples of racial quotas and affirmative action.

For these reasons, when highlighting the importance of causation and identifying the causes of inequality, we must distinguish between inequality on the one hand and poverty or deprivation or human suffering on the other. The goal is to alleviate poverty, deprivation, and human suffering, and free markets are the only way to accomplish that goal.

The Meaning of Justice

In the racial injustice debates, the language of “justice” is often invoked to avoid analyzing the benefits and costs of proposed redistributive schemes. The language of justice gives political schemers a free pass—they do not have to substantiate or justify their claims any further if they can claim to be promoting justice. As Friedrich von Hayek observed in The Mirage of Social Justice: “The people who habitually employ the phrase [social justice] simply do not know themselves what they mean by it and just use it as an assertion that a claim is justified without giving a reason for it.” A similar function is served by other beguiling labels like kindness, compassion, inclusiveness, and diversity—“making people feel welcome.” This language is often used to obfuscate rather than to achieve its putative goals. Thomas Sowell makes a similar point in The Quest for Cosmic Justice, where he criticizes the notion that historical injustice can be reversed by reallocating wealth between different racial groups. Sowell describes this notion as an intertemporal view of justice: the idea that past injustice can be retrospectively corrected by action taken in the present. As Flew explains, this is not justice and, on the contrary, it often relies on injustice and coercion to pursue its goals.

How Should We Think about Justice?

The classical ideal of justice is reflected in the principle of formal equality. Everyone has equal rights in the eyes of the law. Nobody has special rights based on race, sex, or other identity characteristics.

Further, justice in the classical liberal tradition is based on individual responsibility. Any attempt to enforce notions of collective guilt is unjust. As H. D. Lewis argues in “Collective Responsibility,” individual responsibility is a basic ethical principle: “No one can be responsible, in the properly ethical sense, for the conduct of another. Responsibility belongs essentially to the individual.” This principle lies at the heart of the presumption of innocence and the associated principle that anyone who accuses another of any wrongdoing bears the burden of proof. If responsibility is individual, the culpability of each individual for his crimes must be justly ascertained.

Further, as H. D. Lewis argues, “‘A structure’ cannot be the bearer of moral responsibility; neither can ‘society in general,’ for these are both abstractions which we must be careful not to hypostatize.” It follows that we cannot accept the amorphous concept of “systemic racism.” Nor can we hold any person liable to pay reparations for what his “community” or his tribe or his race or even his own forefathers who bear his own name are said to have done in the past.

Three conclusions may be drawn from this analysis. First, that racial preferences designed to redress historical injustice are themselves unjust. We cannot redress historical injustice by implementing new injustices against innocent people today and in the future. Second, that any measures designed to implement such schemes such as “equity” are wrong and should be opposed on that basis.

Third, that justice does not require equal outcomes. Nor does justice require the equalization of everyone’s opportunities, a goal which is humanly impossible and amounts, as Rothbard said, to a revolt against nature. Rather, justice requires formal equality, meaning equal rights and equal status in the eyes of the law regardless of race, sex, or any other aspect of our personal or group identity.

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