Symposium “Distributive Justice” - University of Zurich

Reparations, rightful ownership and recognition

Should financial reparations for slavery in the US be considered? Insights from Nozick’s libertarian theory of justice.


    In 2020, following the death of George Floyd, calls for racial justice increasingly entered mainstream media. One core demand of social movements, included in slogans such as “no justice, no peace,” is to implement reparative justice for slavery and other injustices. Particularly with the new administration under Joe Biden, progress might be in sight on this topic.

    There have been various proposals regarding the form that financial reparations could take, ranging from direct monetary compensation to benefits in housing and education or simply today’s equivalent of forty acres and a mule – the reparations promised to formerly enslaved people in 1862 but never realized (The Economist, 2020). Most philosophical schools support one of these proposals, yet there still is a strong opposition from conservative politicians guided by theories of libertarianism.

    In this blog post, we take a closer look at one particular theory of libertarianism, Robert Nozick’s 1974 Anarchy, State and Utopia, and ask whether it justifies rejecting demands for reparations by those that directly profited off slavery.2 Indeed, this text heavily contributed to the reemergence of and influenced US right-wing politics up to the present.


    Two principles of justice in holdings

    As mentioned above, some of the opponents to reparations argue that the redistribution of resources would violate the fundamental libertarian values of the US. Nozick is a strong advocate of strong individual ownership rights and minimal state intervention. In his theory of “justice in holdings,” he argues against extensive taxation and redistributive policies.

    According to Nozick, a distribution of resources is just if everyone is entitled to their holdings. In contrast to end-result distributions of holding, which only look at who gets what in the end, he suggests that we ought to look at how, historically, one acquired what. This can only be the case (goods of various sorts) when one acquires them following two intertwined principles: justice in acquisition and justice in transfer.

    Justice in acquisition is based on the Lockean tradition and explains “how unheld things come to be held” (Nozick 1974, 150). For unheld objects to be declared as private property, their acquisition and exclusive use must not worsen others’ situation.

    Justice in transfer can only be considered if the thing subject to transfer was acquired justly. For the outcome to be just, the transfer must be done “by just steps” (Nozick 1974, 151). Nozick summarizes a just transfer as follows: “[f]rom each as they choose, to each as they are chosen” (1974, 160). The person justly holding an object in the original situation must be willing to transfer their property under their own conditions to whoever they want to. Any holding acquired by violating the freedom or the rights of a person is not just.

    If these principles are respected, everyone is entitled to their holdings and therefore the distribution is just.


    Applying the theory

    Have these principles been upheld in our case, which would imply that observable inequalities of income and wealth in the US reflect a just distribution? We begin with justice in acquisition: were enslaved people and the wealth they accrued for their white enslavers acquired justly according to Nozick? He maintains that “one owns one’s labor” (1974, 174); this is a clear rejection of the mere existence of slavery. Nozick states more generally: “preventing [people] from living as they choose, or forcibly excluding others from competing in exchanges… are [not] permissible modes of transition from one situation to another” (1974, 152). “Unheld things” (Nozick 1974, 150), let alone people, cannot be acquired justly in this manner.

    As justice in acquisition is not respected, subsequently, justice in transfer is not respected either. This follows from the premise that the seller is not “entitled to the holding” (Nozick 1974, 151). In other words, all the transfers that followed unjust acquisitions were unjust, perpetuating the enslavers’ financial profit from their unjust holdings over time.


    The third principle of justice in holdings

    Nozick acknowledges the existence of such distributions not “generated in accordance with the two principles” and introduces a third principle to address what ought to be done in such cases: the principle of the “rectification of injustice in holdings” (1974, 152). To assess a distribution at one point in time, one needs to take all available historical information into account. Past injustices in acquisition and transfer are acknowledged and used to deduce what possible current situations would be just, were the injustices not committed. If the actual distribution does not belong to one of those scenarios, it must be corrected and holdings must be returned to their rightful owners.

    The discussion above suggests that the third principle should apply to the wealth that was built upon the forced labor of enslaved people by both enslavers and the US government. Even in this libertarian framework, there are good reasons to recognize the need for reparations or “rectification” (Nozick 1974, 53) when resources were unjustly taken away from their legitimate owners.


    Reparations in context

    Enslaved people were stripped of their rights, and the wealth that resulted from slavery never ensured rightful entitlements to their owners. Therefore, following Nozick’s theory, these unjustly acquired holdings can and should be redistributed.

    Today, descendants of slaves are still deprived of these profits as inheritance and compound interest alike. The Pew Research Center estimates that white families in this US hold around twenty times the wealth of Black households (Kochhar and Cilluffo 2017), a racial wealth gap widely considered to result largely from slavery, and from the government’s failure to outlaw slavery that permitted enslavers to build their fortunes off of the backs of enslaved Black people (Bertocchi and Dimico 2014).

    In the libertarian framework proposed by Nozick, the fact that the current distribution of resources perpetuates an original injustice should give support to policies implementing reparations to descendants of enslaved people. Individual perpetrators of slavery have long passed away; but the US government, as single-most powerful enabler of this injustice, still remains. It could, possibly alongside the descendants of enslavers whose wealth is largely based upon the injustices their ancestors perpetrated, be considered to owe reparations as a requirement of justice.

    We leave the specifics of implementation open to debate. Despite our focus on slavery, we recognize the larger context of these debates: the ongoing and past mistreatment of Black people in America. Not only were they held captive and forced to work under atrocious conditions in the past, but are victims of all aspects of the US government from shortened lifespans due to racist health care policies to modern-day slavery through the prison industrial complex, too (Schlosser 1998). A solution for reparations implemented by the US government will have to acknowledge more injustices than just slavery itself.

    What we have argued is that the philosophical school underpinning political oppositions to reparations contains principles that would allow for them. Thus, we can encourage conservative lawmakers to question their stances without necessarily having to subscribe to a progressive philosophy.

    This would not be a first in American history: as guarantor of the legal rights of its citizens, the US government has compensated past wrongs through financial means to both Native Americans, as well as Japanese Americans, taking responsibility for “state sanctioned racial discrimination” (Ray and Perry 2020). As the government allowed for and directly profited from slavery through taxes levied upon the profits of slaveholders, there undoubtedly exists a similar case to be made.


    Bertocchi, Graziella and Arcangelo Dimico. 2014. “Slavery, education, and inequality.” European Economic Review 70, 197-209.

    Coates, Ta-Nehisi. 2014. “The Case for Reparations.” The Atlantic, June. Accessed November 13.

    The Economist. 2020. “Forty acres and a mule: the Economics of Reparations.” The Economist, June 18. Accessed November 15, 2020.

    Kochhar, Rakesh and Anthony Cilluffo. 2017. “How wealth inequality has changed in the U.S. since the Great Recession, by race, ethnicity, and income.” Pew Research, November 1. Accessed November 14, 2020.

    Lamont, Julian and Christi Favor. 2017. “Distributive Justice.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta. Accessed November 15, 2020.

    Locke, John. 1980. Second Treatise of Government. Edited by C. B. Macpherson. Cambridge, MA: Hackett Publishing.

    Nozick, Robert. 1974. “Chapter 7: Distributive Justice.” Anarchy, State and Utopia. Oxford: Blackwell, 149-182.

    Ray, Rashawn and Andre M. Perry. 2020. “Why we need reparations for Black Americans.Brookings, April 15. Accessed November 14, 2020.

    Schlosser, Eric. 1998. “The Prison-Industrial Complex.” The Atlantic, December. Accessed February 15, 2021.

    2 Despite Nozick’s own belief that his theory cannot properly assess the just character of economic distributions (Lamont & Favor 2017), his framework is a useful one to consider our question.