Reparations? Seriously?

For some reason, talk of reparations is in the air. I haven’t seen any concrete proposals, but on Twitter, lots of people are debating whether African-Americans should be paid money to compensate them (or, more logically, their ancestors–but it’s a little late) for slavery. Steve even wrote a half-serious post on the subject yesterday.

At Ricochet, Jason Rudert argues that “The Time for Reparations Is Now.” Rudert writes:

The window for reparations is slowly closing because of demographic changes in this country. Any such scheme will depend on rich, white Baby Boomers who are receptive to appeals based on guilt.

Rudert reasons that the groups that are replacing aging white baby boomers will be less receptive to the arguments for reparations. Actually, I think he greatly exaggerates the number of baby boomers (or anyone else) who feel guilty about the events of centuries past, in which they had no part.

To me, the idea that anyone would seriously try to enact a program of reparations is ludicrous. How would one draft such a statute? Start with the fact that either the “reparations” paid on a per capita basis will be risibly small, or the cost of the program will be ruinous. If an average African-American got $10,000–wouldn’t any smaller amount be almost insulting, if intended to compensate, somehow, for the evils of slavery?–and there are around 38 million self-identified African-Americans, the federal government would have to distribute $380 billion. If the average recipient got $20,000, the program’s cost would be $760 billion. For purposes of comparison, the defense budget is around $650 billion. It is inconceivable that anyone in Congress, with the possible exception of a few members of the Congressional Black Caucus, would vote for such a thing.

Then there is the grotesque racism that would be involved in splitting up the money. Presumably, in order to qualify a recipient would have to show that he or she is descended from one or more American slaves. (Logically, an ancestor who was a slave in, say, Barbados wouldn’t count.) Further, it would seem that the more slaves in one’s ancestry, the more reparations a person would be entitled to. Right? So those African-Americans who want to claim reparations would have to assemble genealogical records to prove descent from a particular number of slaves. In today’s multiracial society, this kind of explicit racism would be perceived by everyone as disgusting–not to mention the fact that most people would not be able to come up with the necessary records.

Lastly, and most critically, is the manifest injustice of the entire project. There are now no slaveholders in the United States, with the possible exception of a few Saudi visitors. Moreover, only a tiny percentage of current Americans are even descended from slaveowners. (Ironically, the percentage of people descended from American slaveholders is undoubtedly higher among African-Americans than among whites.) The idea that some Americans who have never had anything to do with slavery, almost all of whose ancestors also had nothing to do with slavery and in many instances fought successfully to abolish it, should now be taxed to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars to “compensate” people who themselves, likewise, have had nothing to do with slavery, many of whom are wealthy and successful, is so absurdly unfair that it would cause all but the most craven to rebel.

Such a proposal could never be taken seriously in Congress. I doubt that coherent reparations legislation could even be drafted. Why, then, are we suddenly hearing so much about it? I suppose it is part of the Democratic Party’s strategy of stirring up racial enmity. If the Democrats’ purpose is to keep members of their base endlessly riled up, the fact that any serious plan of reparations would be a non-starter is a feature, not a bug. It is, in other words, just one more sign of the degraded political environment in which we live.