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

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.


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.



Meet the New Bosses

How the Republicans would run the Senate.

The Government Is Giving Millions of Dollars in Electric-Car Subsidies to the Wrong Drivers

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Cheez-Its. Ritz. Triscuits.

Why all cracker names sound alike.

Friends Was the Last Purely Pleasurable Sitcom

The Eye

This Whimsical Driverless Car Imagines Transportation in 2059

Medical Examiner

Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?  

A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.

The Afghan Town With a Legitimately Good Tourism Pitch

A Futurama Writer on How the Vietnam War Shaped the Series

  News & Politics
Sept. 21 2014 11:34 PM People’s Climate March in Photos Hundreds of thousands of marchers took to the streets of NYC in the largest climate rally in history.
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
Sept. 20 2014 7:27 AM How Do Plants Grow Aboard the International Space Station?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Sept. 21 2014 1:15 PM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 5  A spoiler-filled discussion of "Time Heist."
Sept. 21 2014 9:00 PM Attractive People Being Funny While Doing Amusing and Sometimes Romantic Things Don’t dismiss it. Friends was a truly great show.
Future Tense
Sept. 21 2014 11:38 PM “Welcome to the War of Tomorrow” How Futurama’s writers depicted asymmetrical warfare.
  Health & Science
The Good Word
Sept. 21 2014 11:44 PM Does This Name Make Me Sound High-Fat? Why it just seems so right to call a cracker “Cheez-It.”
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.