The idea of paying reparations for slavery is back in the news, courtesy of a rambling article by Ta-Nehisi Coates at The Atlantic that generated a lot of attention.
The idea has lots and lots of large practical problems, though is not on its face ridiculous. (I’m not the only conservative who thinks this: see Seth Mandel at Commentary.com.) The labor of generations of slaves was stolen by force, which on libertarian principle is as much a theft as if someone stole your wallet from you at gunpoint. And the heirs of victims of theft are often afforded remedies and recovery, though, as the recent case of artwork plundered by Nazis from Jews in Germany, the reasons why we have statutes of limitation on most property crimes (as well as title to property) would come into play.
In addition to the principle of time limitations for correcting past wrongs, how much would the heirs of slaves be owed? Would the heirs of slaves be owed accrued interest as well as the current value of their stolen labor, which Coates and others estimate at something like $10 trillion? (That amount would seemingly rule out lump sum payments, since our total GDP right now is around $16 trillion, with a federal budget of about $3.5 trillion.)
And who should pay? Strict liability would suggest reparations be paid out of the assets of the descendants of the beneficiaries of slave labor rather than by all taxpayers. And who would qualify to receive them? It couldn’t be strictly by skin color, since many blacks freely immigrated to America during the century and a half since slavery ended. And that raises another question of justice: if reparations were paid, wouldn’t—shouldn’t—that mean the end of all race-conscious remedial policies such as affirmative action admissions, etc? I’m guessing Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, and MSNBC will never go for that deal. The practical complexities of any reparations scheme are beyond the capacities even of Kenneth Feinberg.
But let’s stick with the principle of strict liability for a moment. The chief defender of slavery and its aftermath, the regime of Jim Crow segregation, was the Democratic Party. Democrats in large numbers opposed the 13th Amendment, the 14th Amendment, then for decades disenfranchised blacks in defiance of the intent of the 15th Amendment, and contrived numerous ways to take the property of newly freed blacks and/or prevent them from acquiring property in the South. For decades Democrats blocked civil rights legislation, and federal anti-lynch laws that Republicans proposed in the early 20th century. And Democrats voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in much larger proportion than Republicans did—a fact many Republicans seem to forget. But for the determined opposition of the Democratic Party for more than a century, blacks today would likely have accumulated a larger share of national assets—there would be less of what Coates calls the “wealth gap”—and be closer to equality on all of the other measures held dear by the Left.
So here’s a modest proposal: Democrats should pay reparations for slavery. They certainly have enough billionaires in their midst these days to put up a substantial amount. And that would include Oprah Winfrey too, for the simple reason that her billion-dollar fortune is clearly derived from the structure of “white privilege”—or so we’re told by the cutting edge of racial consciousness these days. (The point is, if your read the entire Coates essay it is impossible to disentangle the accumulation of wealth from the presumed endemic racism, such that reparations ultimately comes down to straight out redistribution. So Oprah has to pay up, too.)
So by all means let’s have one of these “conversations” about race that Eric Holder keeps hectoring us about.
PAUL ADDS: The conceptual problem I have with reparations for the descendants of slaves is that, as a class, they are much better off than they would have been absent the institution of slavery. But for that institution, most of them would not be citizens of the United States. They would be less free and less materially well-off than they are, and they would have many fewer opportunities going forward.
Those who actually endured slavery were made worse off as a result of that institution. So too were most of their children and many of their grandchildren. But they are not around to receive reparations. Those descendants who are around are mainly beneficiaries (in the sense described above) of the horror and the tragedy of slavery.
JOHN adds: This was the point made by Muhammad Ali when he arrived back in the U.S. after the Rumble in the Jungle. At the airport, a reporter called out, “What did you think of Africa, champ?” Ali’s reply was something like, “I’m just glad my great-granddaddy caught that boat!”