The Case Against Reparations for Slavery
America’s public square never seems to lack for crazy and oft-debunked proposals for bringing about solutions to age-old problems. Reparations is one of those Energizer Bunny-like proposals that never seems to go away. Here’s the renowned Richard A. Epstein addressing this issue in a recent Hoover Institution piece:
For true racial justice, let’s promote the rule of law, deregulate the labor market, and embrace the charter school movement.
In the most recent issue of The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates has created a minor sensation with his impassioned article “The Case for Reparations.” Coates pulls no punches. Notwithstanding his earlier doubts on the topic, his current position is crystal clear: “Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy. Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole.” From the point of view of a libertarian who has written against black reparations in the past, I shall assess the strengths and weaknesses of his position before turning to his proposed system of reparations.
The Sins of the Past
Coates writes with an urgency that carries his reader. He is at his best when he describes the various outrages of the American past in ways that are immediately accessible to all readers, regardless of race, sex, age, class, or national origin. Ironically, much of his narrative assumes a libertarian premise, even though Coates’s politics are anything but. The central libertarian principle is that every individual has rights against the rest of the world, to whom he or she owes correlative duties. Most vividly, the fundamental obligations are these: refrain from the use or threat of force; refrain from the use of false words to achieve private advantage; and keep your promises to others, just as you expect them to keep their promises to you.
The first and most powerful corollary to these bedrock assumptions is that no individual should ever be made into the slave of another. That position was well understood in ancient Rome, which developed extensive rules governing the institution of slavery. These rules were all creatures of the positive law, i.e. rules handed down by the sovereign. But at the same time, the Romans well understood that this body of positive law was in hopeless conflict with the natural law by which all men and women were free persons with the full capacity to make the decisions to govern their own lives. Thus Justinian’s Institutes states categorically: “Slavery is an institution of the law of nations, by which one man is made the property of another, contrary to natural right.” No one should ever sugarcoat slavery in America by arguing that it was justified by the moral code of its time. The truth is that slavery always rested on an assertion of naked sovereign power against those persons who, upon capture, were not capable of resisting its demands.
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