Should America Pay Reparations for Slavery?
The question comes up again and again: should the U.S. government pay reparations to the descendants of African American slaves? There are a variety of arguments for this, the most obvious of which is the obvious horror of slavery itself. Speaking as a member of the Party that freed the slaves and consistently opposed segregation, I am especially sympathetic to those who make this case.
And yet, reparations is one of those ideas that really only make sense if you don’t examine it too deeply.
The biggest problem is responsibility. No African American alive has been a slave, nor has any white person been a slave owner. Slavery was abolished in 1865, and several hundred thousand white people died in the war that led to their freedom. Since they were freed, a century and a half has passed in which countless millions have immigrated to the United States, having had no responsibility for American slavery (though they all came from places that enslaved people, because there is no place on Earth that in the past did not). Moreover, black people have intermarried with many of those people, as well as the descendants of the white people who enslaved their ancestors.
This raises questions that are uncomfortable at best:
- Why should a bunch of Irish people, or Mexicans, or Chinese, who arrived in America after 1865 have to pay for these reparations? And even if they were specifically exempted somehow, how would they not suffer the economic effects of this economic chaos resulting from such a giant expropriation?
- Will blacks who are partially of white descent have to pay? If not, why not?
- Why should anyone who had nothing to do with slavery have to pay anyone for anything?
- Why should anyone who was not personally enslaved receive any compensation for what happened to someone else?
- If African Americans are to receive compensation for the oppression their ancestors experienced, why should they not have to immediately pay some or all of it to the descendants of the Union soldiers who died or were maimed freeing those same ancestors?
- If African Americans should receive reparations for something that took place (at the very latest) 150 years ago, why should still other groups not also receive reparations? For instance, many think that Reconstruction was unjust: should the South receive reparations for that? From 1775 to 1783, Americans of all races took up arms to deprive their King of his possessions in North America: should the United States pay reparations to the United Kingdom? Or perhaps should the United Kingdom pay reparations to the United States for the various offenses that led to the Revolution?
We can just go on like this forever. Some say the English were partly responsible for the Irish potato famine: should the UK have to pay reparations to the United States for our having to deal with the influx of refugees in that period? Perhaps the UK government should pay reparations to the Angles and Saxons for William the Conqueror’s defeat of Harold at the Battle of Hastings; or maybe we should do DNA testing to find people of Roman descent who could be forced to pay reparations for having sent Christians to the lions in the Colosseum.
Where does it end?
I don’t know. But it has long been a principle of law that sons are not responsible for the crimes of their fathers, nor fathers for their sons. Reparations are a complete perversion of justice that will invite demands for redress of every real or imagined slight since the founding of the world. There are a thousand economic, moral and political reasons why they are impractical or unworkable, but the central reason they are a terrible idea is simply this: they elevate not justice nor forgiveness but plain old vengeance — taken on people who are in no way responsible — to both a moral virtue and a matter of public policy.
It is a terrible shame that slavery ever existed anywhere (and just to be clear, it existed absolutely everywhere and for all of history). That’s why we fought a war to end it and amended the Constitution to prevent it every happening again. We should be celebrating the collectively enlightenment that has taken place, ending a practice ubiquitous in all lands for all of time. We should not be trying to figure out a way to deprive the innocent out of their possessions in a misguided attempt at “justice.”