Why reparation for slavery is a bad idea

Commentary

Why reparation for slavery is a bad idea

Leading Democratic Presidential candidates support reparations for slavery or a commission to study reparations. This includes Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Julian Castro, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX), Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA).

The argument for reparations is that if the government unjustly harmed someone, then it should pay them compensation. Since the U.S. government unjustly harmed current American blacks, it owes them compensation. The underlying notion is that slavery, Jim Crow laws, violence, discrimination, and hatred harmed current black people by denying them access to education, jobs, and loans. This broke up their families, caused them psychological problems, and impoverished them.

There are several objections to this argument. Historic injustices did not harm current blacks because it led to their creation. This objection rests on two assumptions. First, something that causes someone to come into existence doesn’t harm him. This is particularly clear if he has a good life. By analogy, a mother who creates someone doesn’t harm him if he has a good life as opposed to no life at all. Second, past injustices led to the creation of current blacks. Slavery, early Jim Crow laws, racial exclusion, and so on affected which black men and women reproduced with each other. If they had reproduced with other people, they would have had different children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, and so on. As a result, current American blacks would not have existed.

Even if past injustices did not lead to the creation of current blacks, there is a further problem in figuring out how much compensation is owed. In tort law, compensation aims to put the victim in as good a position as he would have been in had the injustice to him not occurred. In the case of reparations, roughly, this involves figuring out how well American blacks would be doing had slavery not occurred. But if slavery had not occurred, American blacks would be living in Africa. Africa is poorer, more violent, and less free than America. As a result, American blacks would be much worse off had slavery not occurred. If slavery affected current blacks in a relevant way, then, it benefitted them.

In figuring out how much compensation would be owed, another problem arises. American blacks are roughly 25% white. If one’s genetics or ancestry are essential to him, there is no world in which current black people don’t have white ancestors. Yet the scenario in which a quarter of blacks’ ancestors were white but racial oppression didn’t occur is so different from the real world that there is no way to figure out how well blacks would be doing but for slavery and related injustices.

Compensation gets further reduced if a victim’s suffering results in part from her own poor choices. This is true of some American blacks. Writing for the Brookings Institute, Isabel Sawhill and Ron Haskins point out that an American is unlikely to be poor if she graduates from high school, has children in wedlock and after age 20, and lives in a household in which someone has a full-time job. Also, according to a 2015 study by the National Center for Education Statistics, the average black high school 12th grader reads at the same level as the average 8th grade white student. In inner city public schools, more than 90% of black high school seniors are not at grade level in math and more than 80% are not at this level in reading. If some of this poverty and poor performance is due to poor choices rather than past injustice, it is even more difficult to figure out how much money is owed.

For the above reasons, then, past injustices did not harm current blacks and, even if it did, the amount of compensation owed is nearly impossible to figure out. Still, it might be argued that reparations are owed because blacks have been denied inheritance. The case for reparations would then rest on the idea that the government owed money to slaves and victims of early Jim Crow oppression and their descendants inherited this claim to the money. Alternatively, compensation might still be owed to past blacks. Because they are no longer around, the debt can best be paid by giving their money to their descendants.

The sum descendants are owed would have increased astronomically because of interest (or investment), inflation, and compounding. Given these factors, each slave’s claim would today be worth at least a million dollars today and perhaps a lot more.

The notion of stolen inheritance, though, has its own problems. Again, the amount the government would owe to descendants is nearly impossible to figure out. Some injustices were performed by the federal government, some by state or local governments, and some by private parties. It is incredibly hard, if not impossible, to divvy up who did what. The problem gets worse because harms that result from omission do not warrant as much compensation as harms that occur from commission. To see this, consider a case in which a cowardly bystander watches a woman get assaulted by a motorcycle club, but does not call the police or take other preventive action. Because he does not contribute to the attack, he does not owe compensation. In many cases, the federal government acted more like the cowardly bystander than the attackers because it permitted other groups to commit atrocities rather than committing them itself.

Also, once the government gets into the business of paying off inherited claims for past injustice (consider, for example, its Central and South American adventures), the number of claims would be staggering.

In short, reparations for slavery is a bad idea. Slavery and historic injustices didn’t harm current blacks. If reparations are owed, they are owed as inheritance. Even if inheritance is owed, and this is unclear, the federal government would likely owe only a small portion of it.

Stephen Kershnar is a State University of New York at Fredonia philosophy professor. Send comments to editorial@observertoday.com

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