Lockeans and Indians

A blog about business and economics.
Sept. 19 2012 1:52 PM

If Your House Is Built On Land Expropriated From Its Indigenous Inhabitants—You Didn't Build That

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Sitting Bull

Library of Congress photo

Last night on Twitter I made an offhand reference to the Murphy/Nagel account of property rights and the legitimacy of egalitarian tax policies which prompted a firestorm of indignant table-pounding references to John Locke from conservatives in my Twitter feed.

The standard critique of progressive taxation is that if you take it too far it harms economic growth, and growing the pie is more important than dividing it equitably. I'm absolutely on board for that. But the Lockean view (perhaps given its clearest modern expression in Robert Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia) is that these pragmatic considerations are off-base. Property is held by right owing to its historical chain of possession from an original legitimate acquirer through voluntary exchange and bequest.

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This is, I think, a silly idea. A quick glance at American history reminds you that there's no legitimate chain of voluntary exchanges involved in, say, the expropriation of Native American land.

Bryan Caplan, in what I believe was a response to my tweets, took this query the wrong way essentially asking the question "given that the Lockean account of property rights is correct, do we need to give land back to the Indians" and quoting Murray Rothbard's argument that we don't have to. That's fine, but the real question on the table is "shouldn't we reject the Lockean account of property?" After all, the dispossession of North America's indigenous inhabitants is just a particularly dramatic episode of past violation of Lockean considerations. There's also the small matter of African chattel slavery and the ensuring 100-year history of segregation, to say nothing of the ways in which gender oppression over the past three or four thousand years has shaped the course of current holdings. One also might note that many capitalistic fortunes are built on a foundation of copyright or even that the many billionaires of the Walton family owe their fortunes in part to the existence of redistributive programs that have bolstered the purchasing power of their core clients. To ask which present-day people would be richer and which would be poorer had we not had tax subsidies for owner-occupied housing and large group health insurance is to pose a fundamentally unanswerable question.

The solution isn't to try to unravel the tangled history of rights and legitimate entailments, it's to admit that the real world human practice of property rights has very little to do with this notion. We should define a set of property rights that, on a forward-looking basis, are likley to lead to human prosperity. That means fairly strong property rights as a crucial foundation of a modern economy, but also leaves ample room for redistribution. 

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.

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