Irredentism is the belief that a group of people has the right to claim land or property which it was in possession of at some point in time, either according to historical fact or myth and legend. A few examples of irredentism are Zionism, the Greater Armenia, and United Ireland movements. Irredentism has been used to justify some of the worst human rights violations in human history. These include ultra-nationalist expansionism during both World Wars, ethnic cleansing during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, and the Palestinian expulsion during the 1948 war, just to name a few examples. It is also a driver behind movements for reparations to various ethnic groups for historical injustices against them, including Native Americans and African Americans.
Thankfully, most libertarians are opposed to irredentism and movements inspired by it. However, many are unable to properly explain to someone why such movements are unjust and should be opposed. After all, libertarians believe in the non-aggression principle (NAP), and people who violate the NAP should pay restitution to their victims. Thus, one might initially assume that Americans should have to give back land to Natives, as land confiscation during the early American period was clearly a violation of the NAP. This logic, however, is flawed for several reasons.
The first is the most obvious, and that is statutes of limitations. No one alive today was also alive at the time of Native American ethnic cleansing. Thus, current Americans are the rightful owners of their land. One might argue, however, that land claims can be passed down through numerous generations. Thus, if one could prove that their ancestor owned land which was stolen, and they would have passed ownership of it down to them, that they should be entitled to “re-claim” that land for themselves.
To understand why this is wrong, consider the following. Because individuals are capable of determining what creates utility (whether this is ordinal/preferential utility, as advocated for by Mises, or cardinal utility, as used by some mainstream economists, is irrelevant) for themselves more reliably than anyone else, giving them exclusive control over the goods and services they create or acquire through voluntary exchange makes sense from a utilitarian perspective. However, one may argue that from a utilitarian perspective, taking a house from a wealthy landlord and giving it to homeless person is justified. The law of decreasing marginal utility, after all, demonstrates that the landlord almost certainly gets less utility from owning that house than the homeless person would. The reason that this in unjust, of course, is the effect that it would have on the market as a whole. If other landlords cannot be certain that their houses will not be stolen from them at any point, then they have less incentive to invest their money and build them in the first place. Thus, the utilitarian consequences are still negative.
The way in which this applies to statutes of limitations is that, at some point in time, the market begins treating property which was stolen from its original owner as if it were legitimately owned by the thief. Stolen land is not simply lost, it acts as an asset for whoever possesses it at the time. People are holding that land, building on it, using it as collateral for loans, and causing others to make business decisions based off their actions. Thus, at some point in time, giving the property back to its original owner creates more negative utility than allowing its current possessor to maintain control over it due to how the market behaves. The time frame for this should generally be about 25 years, as a 4% interest rate is generally seen as standard rate of return for investments. 100/4 = 25, so it will take about 25 years for the value created by this property in possession by the thief to exceed its original value, thus causing the market to treat it more as if the thief was its legitimate owner. This time frame can be higher or lower depending on circumstances (economic growth rates, value added by the thief in the form of renovations, etc.) but 25 years should generally be a rule of thumb.
Furthermore, there is also the fact that, more often than not, property disputed by irredentists was confiscated by the state and simply redistributed to private individuals, not taken by the individuals themselves. If a thief were to steal a car, then sell it to someone not involved in the theft, the person who bought the car should not be punished for this. Instead, the thief should be the one who has to either buy back the car to give it to its original owner, or provide the owner with compensation. Likewise, in the case of government land confiscation, it is the state which steals this land, not private individuals. Because the government can only acquire money for restitution through taxation (more theft), it should not be expected to pay out any sort of reparation for it, unless it still is in possession of property it stole. Continuing on, there is also the fact that this would be enforcing ex post facto law. If something immoral was legal at the time, then there would be no reason for someone acting by that society’s morals to think that what they were doing was wrong. Thus, they can’t be reasonably expected to know that what they were doing was immoral, therefore lack mens rea and shouldn’t be prosecuted for it. Instead, the political leaders who allowed these things to be legal in the first place should be the ones punished.
One can see the moral basis of not punishing most people involved in an immoral political system and generally allowing them to keep the property they received from it. Individuals who received welfare payments or use public roads should not be expected to pay back the value they received from these thingd. Thus, with the exception of property currently owned by the government, most property stolen by it should not be returned to its former owners. However, there is the fact that welfare payments consist of only a small amount of money taken from many millions of people, while land is often confiscated from an identifiable individual or group. Furthermore, such governmental actions are often heavily supported by the individuals who stand to benefit from it. Thus, it would be just for some statute of limitations to apply in such cases (e.g. Israeli settlers). Because economic actors generally take governmental actions into consideration when making decisions, this statute of limitations should generally be shorter than the one which applies to theft by private individuals. But again, circumstances should be taken into account (whether or not the recipients of the land engaged in its theft or supported it, investments into the land, etc).
All of this provides the justification for policies largely centered on reconciliation when it comes to irredentist disputes over land or property. To give an example, the occupation of Palestine and land confiscation during it was unjust, even though Jews controlled this land thousands of years ago. Furthermore, because of statutes of limitations and the fact that most of this land was confiscated by the government, most Israelis living between the river and the sea should be allowed to keep their property. Land currently owned by the government or recently stolen for the construction of settlements, on the other hand, should be given to Palestinians, if only to reduce the amount of state-owned land. National borders should be drawn according to the self-determination of private citizens with the preservation of international and internal peace being given priority in negotiations. The same can be said about Native Americans, African-Americans, black and white people in Zimbabwe and South Africa, Armenians and Azeris, Germans and Poles, and every other irredentist conflict which exists in the world.
Starté Butone is a libertarian writer and contributor to Antiwar.com.