June 16, 2010

Libertarianism, Property Rights, and the Israel-Palestine Conflict

A self-described libertarian recently left the following comments on one of my posts:

The idea that the Arabs have a claim to Israel is absurd. Forget religion for a sec. and look historically, Did Alexander kick the Arabs out? Did the Romans burn a Mosque or Temple, did Nebachanezzer kill Arabs over their religion, obviously not.... so unless you propose to give the land back to the yebisute or the caananite or amorite, the land is the Jews, no matter who was there in 1948.

Considering this and considering the Arab claim the land does not belong to the Jews, why are the libertarians not screaming bloody hell that the arabs dont respect property rights?...

I mean lets be fair, Israel, while a sucker...did not have to give any land back...it belongs to them rightfully.

Now this individual, whom I’ll simply refer to as X, seems like a good guy, and I agree with much of what he writes on his blog, but, as his comments reveal, he doesn’t have a libertarian view of property rights. Consequently, his view of the Israel-Palestine conflict is decidedly anti-libertarian.

In order to see why this is so, we need to understand the libertarian view of property rights. As libertarian philosopher and economist Murray Rothbard points out, this view derives from the writings of John Locke, who wrote in his Second Treatise on Government:

[E]very man has a property in his own person. This nobody has any right to but himself. The labour of his body and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property. It being by him removed from the common state nature placed it in, it hath by this labour something annexed to it that excludes the common right of other men. For this labour being the unquestionable property of the labourer, no man but he can have a right to what that is once joined to. (Quoted in Murray Rothbard, The Ethics of Liberty, 21-22)

To put it into Rothbard’s words, “every man has an absolute right to the control and ownership of his own body, and to unused land resources that he finds and transforms” (60). For instance, if I find a rock and fashion it into a knife, then I become the owner of the knife; if I come across a vacant piece of land and build a home on that land or plant a garden there, then I become the rightful owner of the land; etc.

Notice that this concept of property rights rejects what Rothbard refers to as the Columbus complex. As Rothbard explains:

Some theorists have maintained—in what we might call the “Columbus complex”—that the first discoverer of a new, unowned island or continent can rightfully own the entire area by simply asserting his claim. (In that case, Columbus, if in fact he had actually landed on the American continent—and if there had been no Indians living there—could have rightfully asserted his private “ownership” of the entire continent.) In natural fact, however, since Columbus would only have been able actually to use, to “mix his labor with,” a small part of the continent, the rest then properly continues to be unowned until the next homesteaders arrive and carve out their rightful property in parts of the continent. (47)

So, to summarize, one becomes the owner of a natural resource by finding and transforming that resource. Once one becomes the owner of a resource, he of course has the right to sell it or give it away.

But what do we do when a piece of property has been obtained through illicit means? Say, for instance, that I’m sitting on a piece of stolen land. Am I morally obligated to forfeit the land? Not necessarily. As Rothbard writes:

For that depends on two considerations: (a) whether the victim (the property owner originally aggressed against) or his heirs are clearly identifiable and can now be found; or (b) whether or not the current possessor is himself the criminal who stole the property.

So even if I’m not the one who stole the land, I’m obligated to return it to the original owner, or the owner’s heirs, if possible. And if I’m the thief, then, even if the owner or his heirs can’t be found, I have no right to keep the property. But if neither of these conditions can be met—that is, if the original owner, or his heirs, can’t be found, and if I’m not the thief—then I’m entitled to retain the property (57-58).

With this understanding of the libertarian view of property rights, we’re now able to see why X’s argument—that “the land [i.e., Palestine] is the Jews, no matter who was there in 1948”—is anti-libertarian. First of all, even though it’s true that Jews were the main inhabitants of Palestine two thousand years ago, it doesn’t follow that they transformed and thus owned every plot of land, every rock, every grain of sand. Rather, Jews owned certain plots of land, certain rocks, certain grains of sand. Therefore, it’s patently absurd to say that Arabs have no right to live in Palestine simply because some Jews owned some segments of the land two thousand years ago.

Second, a Jew would only have the right to take a piece of land from a Palestinian if that Jew could demonstrate that the piece of land in question once belonged to his ancestors, something which obviously can’t be done. Merely saying, “My ancestors once lived somewhere in this eight-thousand square mile vicinity” isn’t grounds for evicting Palestinians from their homes.

Although not essential to my argument, I feel the need to point out that Jews today can’t even prove that they descended from the Jews who originally inhabited Palestine. While this claim might seem foolish to some, as Patricia Cohen of the New York Times notes in her review of Shlomo Sand’s The Invention of the Jewish People, “experts pretty much agree that some popular beliefs about Jewish history simply don’t hold up: there was no sudden expulsion of all Jews from Jerusalem in A.D. 70, for instance. What’s more, modern Jews owe their ancestry as much to converts from the first millennium and early Middle Ages as to the Jews of antiquity” (“Book Calls Jewish People an ‘Invention’,” 23 November 2009). Moreover, as Sand describes in his book, many Jews converted to Islam when Muslims conquered Palestine in the seventh century—which of course means that many modern Palestinians probably descended from ancient Jews.

Now I don’t write any of this to suggest that Palestine belongs to the Palestinians, not the Jews. For if we’re going to accept the libertarian view of property rights—which I do—then we must conclude that Palestine doesn’t belong to any one ethnic or political group. Rather, portions of the land belong to Palestinians, and portions of the land belong to Jews. Among other things, this means that the 1948 refugees and their descendants have the right to return to their homes. This also means that most of the Jews currently living in the land have the right to remain exactly where they are, as only a small number of Jews are living on land expropriated from Palestinians (Laila El-Haddad, “Palestinian right of return is feasible,” Al Jazeera, 31 May 2005).