What’s Wrong With Reparations?

BY MARK W. HENDRICKSON

David Brooks of The New York Times has now jumped on the bandwagon, writing “The Case for Reparations.”

The idea of paying living African-Americans for the sin/crime/abomination/evil (and I use those words only because I can’t think of harsher ones) of the slavery of long-dead African-Americans keeps bubbling up.

I ask, if slavery was so vile and indefensible, as 99 percent of Americans today know it was, then what’s wrong with reparations? With apologies to the poet, “let me count the ways.”

1. Reparations would violate a key principle of justice. It would punish those who have harmed nobody. The drive to penalize innocent Americans solely on the grounds that they had a guilty ancestor seems as fanatically demented to me as a Christian zealot who hates Jews because “the Jews” were the ones who had Jesus executed a couple of millennia ago.

2. Reparations are racist. I would be expected to pay compensation to the descendants of American slaves even though my grandparents didn’t come to the United States until after the Civil War. They were poor people who never owned slaves in either the Old or the New World. The only reason I would be expected to pay would be because I am white. My whiteness would be my guilt. But that precept has no more moral justification than blacks being denied their rights for being black. This is just the “two wrongs don’t make a right” principle

3. Reparations are unconstitutional. After the Civil War, Americans voted to abolish the immoral institution of slavery. The 13th Amendment stipulates, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States. …” Since living Americans can’t possibly be convicted of the crime of slavery, it would be unconstitutional to subject white Americans to the economic “involuntary servitude” of having to turn over a share of the fruits of their labor to Americans of a different race. It was wrong when blacks were compelled to work for the enrichment of whites, and it would be wrong today to compel whites to work for the enrichment of blacks.

4. Reparations are selective. Slavery is a sad component of a brutal human history. The practice was widespread, and, in fact, persists in some parts of the world today. Not only did whites enslave blacks, but so did blacks. And blacks enslaved whites. And let’s not even get into Asia’s history of slavery. Nor was slavery the only way in which human rights were horribly abused. Should the peoples of Eastern Europe and Western Asia be entitled to reparations because of the depredations of Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan? Should those descended from English serfs be recompensed for the indignities, deprivations, and bondage they suffered? I mean, how far back do you want to go?

If you want to claim reparations for every American with an ancestor who was treated unjustly, brutally, etc., then how can you arbitrarily limit reparations to African-Americans? Reparations are like Pandora’s box—you open it and soon, you’re plagued with a proliferation of bad things.

5. Reparations are backward-looking. Well, yes, of course, they are in the sense that some believe that retribution for past offenses would be rectified by reparations, but I am referring here to the costs of living in the past instead of living in the present for the sake of the future. If you want to see how harmful it is to dwell in the past, take a look at the Middle East. While Jews and Arabs who have buried the past and live and work for a peaceful future for all are to be highly commended, it is self-evident from the recurring conflicts there that too many people just can’t let go of the past.

Instead, they are willing to subject their children to the horrors of war in the perennially futile attempt to settle scores that are thousands of years old. Reparations would have us dwell on the worst aspects of our history rather than lifting us above them.

6. Reparations are hypocritical. Craven progressive politicians endorse reparations in the cynical attempt to win “the black vote.” What incredible effrontery this is. Progressives are the ones who have used “urban renewal” as a pretext to bulldoze African-American business districts; the ones who devised welfare programs that incentivized single parenthood with devastating consequence for African-American families and neighborhoods; the ones who today strive to deny African-American children school choice and keep them on the teachers’ unions’ plantations.

Now, progressive hypocrites seek to portray themselves as champions of justice for the very African-American citizens whom they have repeatedly ruined.

7. Reparations are unaffordable. We can’t afford even a fraction of the Green New Deal, yet the politicians who seem most supportive of reparations tend to be the same ones who want to spend us broke on the Green New Deal. Progressives remain oblivious to the simple reality that we live in a world of finite financial resources, and the astronomical costs of their various policy wish-lists are telling them that they have to prioritize and make choices.

For example, do they prefer to try to “fix” the past by paying reparations or do they want to “fix” the future by retooling the American economy? At $22 trillion of national debt and counting, why the eagerness to saddle our children with even more debt?

Returning to Brooks’s pro-reparations column, he claims that “the African-American experience is … the original sin that hardens the heart” and “separates Americans from one another.” I don’t like the glib phraseology “original sin” (“American society’s most wicked and egregious sin” is clearer and avoids debatable theological implications), but what I object to most is his use of the present tense.

Slavery, lynching, Jim Crow laws, etc. did harden hearts and separate earlier generations of Americans. Our country was poorer for that—spiritually, morally, socially, and economically.

Let’s not repeat those errors by dividing Americans according to race today.


This article appeared first in TheEpochTimes.com.


Self-Educated American Contributing Editor, Mark Hendrickson, is retired from the faculty at Grove City College where he remains Fellow for Economic and Social Policy at The Institute for Faith & Freedom. He is also a contributing editor of The St. Croix Review, sits on the Council of Scholars of the Commonwealth Foundation and writes opinion commentary for TheEpochTimes.com


Mr. Hendrickson’s most recent books include: The Big Picture: The Science, Politics, and Economics of Climate Change (2018), Problems with Picketty: Flaws and Fallacies in Capital in the 21st Century (2015), Famous But Nameless: Inspiration and Lessons from the Bible’s Anonymous Characters (2011); and God and Man on Wall Street: The Conscience of Capitalism (with Craig Columbus, 2012).


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