When should property theft become legitimate?

Here are some examples of property theft that were clearly unjustifiable when they were first done, but may or may not now be considered legitimate.

There are few left today would defend the actions of the U.S. government in dishonoring its early 19th-century treaties with the American Indians and seizing land that was promised to the various tribal nations in perpetuity. Yet there are even fewer who would favor dusting off the original treaties and returning all the land to the Indians that was originally recognized as theirs. Most feel that even if the original theft of the land from the Indians was a monstrous injustice, it would merely compound the injustice to bring in the county sheriff to kick Joe Green and his family out of his house so that Jake Tenspears of the Shawnee nation may again have the land that his g’-g’-g’-great grandparents rightfully owned.

Here’s another instance. In the Middle East, Palestinians in the West Bank seek a “right of return” to their homes in Israel. Many of these families or their parents fled their homes at the urging of the Arab military; some were driven out by the Israeli military. Many of these homes have been occupied by Jewish or Palestinian Israelis for fifty years; others have been empty ever since the original occupants left. Should the original Palestinian owners still be considered the rightful owners of all these properties, none of them, or only the uninhabited ones? And does it matter whether they were forced out or left voluntarily?

Still more recently, thousands of Cuban landowners fled for their lives during Castro’s communist revolution, and the Cuban government confiscated their property. There is serious talk in the U.S. about suing or freezing the assets of companies that develop or do business on land that our government still considers to rightfully belong to its original Cuban owners. This theft is now forty years old. Has it become legitimate by passage of time? Will it ever?

I suspect that most posters on this board (myself included) will consider at least one of the thefts listed above to be legitimate now. What is the deciding factor? Is time the only relevant consideration?

To further obfuscate:

As far as it being a question of time, let me point out that citizens of the Czech Republic could return and reclaim homes & property taken from them by Nazi Germany and the Communist regime. This remains an issue between the Czech Republic and Germany - after WWII Czechoslovakia “expelled” the German population living in the Sudetenland (Western part of Bohemia). These Germans would like to reclaim their family homes and properties, but the Czechs have resisted, saying “It’s your own damn fault for voting to join with Hitler, idiots.” Makes for sticky relations between the two countries still.

A thorny issue. But it is important to consider that even to the extent that one grants that one cannot, after the passage of time, remove the property from the present owners, this does not mean that the original victims should not be given some form of compensation.

I think the difficulty in restoring the property to its former owners is in that the current owners may be innocent victims, having bought it from someone who was the legal owner at the time. If the current owner is the original thief (or even an heir) I would say take it away no matter how long he has had it. In the Cuban instance, the current owner is still the owner, so I would have no problem returning it to the former owners. In the other cases it has been mostly sold to private citizens long ago. But as for compensation, I think as long as the entity that caused the robbery to come about (e.g. the US or Israeli government) is still around, that entity should still be required to compensate the victims.

(In the particular instance of the Palestinians, there is a complicating factor in that the Israeli government is not all that eager to allow the refugees to return. So even if one grants the refugees ownership over abandoned homes - as I would - that would still not necessarily mean that they would be able to return to take up residence there - an entirely different issue.)

How you rectify people for unjust theft of property is a bit of a taxing theoretical issue. Robert Nozick tackled it from an economic libertarian point of view. He believes that the justice of property ownership is determined by the justice in each transaction it has been involved in.

Nozick claimed that an item is justly held if the original acquisition and any subsequent transfer of ownership of that item was free from fraud or coercion. In his view, the examples listed in the OP would all indicate land or property held unjustly by the current owners. In that case, the state must become involved to rectify the injustices to ensure that the original owners are no worse off now than they would be had they retained ownership.



There are three main problems:

[li]Rectifying historical injustices is impractical. Attempting to rectify property theft on a large scale may not be possible with the resources to hand (either in terms of returning the property or providing monetary compensation). It may also be impossible to identify who the rectification should be made to.[/li][li]Historical records are often social constructs. History is not always recorded objectively, and individual transactions may not be traceable throughout history. How do you judge the validity of a claim in this light (or at least define the “boundaries” of the claim)?[/li][li]As IzzyR says, the current owners may have purchased the property justly. Forcibly removing property from the current owners may be seen as creating another injustice in itself, if they purchased the property without fraud or coercion. Can someone today be forced to lose out as the result of an injustice committed generations ago?[/li][/ul]

It may seem naive to some but surely wrong is wrong and the lapsing of time doesn’t negate the argument.
For instance, whilst it may not be feasable at this stage to fully restore the land of Israel to the Palestinins, the world powers nevertheless have a moral obligation to undo as much of the injustice as possible by insisting on full sharing rather than dominance.
Similarly in Ireland the part still governed by the UK should be returned to the Irish. If some of the citizens do not want to live in an united Ireald they should be offered repatriation to the UK mainland.
Countless examples exist and I would contend that property theft never becomes legitimate

Since you are asking a moral questions, I thought I’d throw this into the mix:

Catholic teaching on theft

While agree that property theft should never be considered legitimised by the passing of time, I have to disagree with some of the examples. I don’t think rectification is as simple as handing property back over:

[li]How do you propose that “world powers” force Israelis and Palestinians to live together happily?[/li][li]The loyalists in Northern Ireland don’t want to be moved into the UK. They want to stay where they are. Wouldn’t forcing them to move be an unjust act in itself?[/li][li]…which leads me back to this point: how do two wrongs make a right? How can creating a new injustice adequately redress a new one?[/li][/ul]

You are right about countless examples existing. To use one that was actually proposed by the OP, what do you think about a form of powersharing in the US between descendents of the various Indian Tribes and the current occupiers, the US government?

I want to clarify that what interests me is what should happen to private property that has been unjustly taken, rather than what should happen to state sovereignty. Northern Ireland is mostly owned and inhabited by Irishmen, and will be regardless of whether Eire or the UK possesses sovereignty over the area. Thus the question I’m trying to get into is not “Should the UK turn over sovereignty of Northern Ireland to Eire?” but “Should whoever is governing northern Ireland allow the current inhabitants to retain their property, or try to figure out who are the descendants of the rebellious Irish landlords expropriated at the time of Cromwell and distribute the land amongst said descendants?”

Likewise, you can be fully in favor of Israel’s independence and sovereignty over its current boundaries, and still question whether the private individuals who were living there at the time should have been permitted to retain their property (and remember that many of them did retain their property; there is a huge minority of Palestinians living peacefully in Israel on the land that they have always owned). And even if Israel voted to disband itself tomorrow and distribute its territory to Egypt, Jordan and Syria, it would still be debatable whether the Israelis who have lived for two generations in homes abandoned by Palestinians should then be forced onto the road. In either case it is individual property that concerns me.

Hagbard Celine, ala Robert A Wilson, defined property as that which one possesses and may continue to possess without a gun (force in general).

If you need to fight to keep it, then it isn’t really yours.

Interestingly enough, this invalidates all property in the world held by any person or government, pretty much. Hence the phrase, “property is theft.”

Because doing a wrong is never right, it isn’t moral to steal something back (if stealing is wrong, wihch I think we agree it is). We may justify our behavior on some practical rationale, on a religious stance, on a retribution-based intitiative, whatever. But it won’t make it right(good), only “just.” And only just by the standards of whoever is pointing the gun at someone else to get them off the land, as noted above.

[sub]and now for something completely different[/sub]