Imagine being a Latin American immigrant to the United States who arrived fifty years ago, worked six days a week—every week—to establish a small business, and has now achieved some modicum of financial security. But now you’re being told every every time you turn on the news that you are on the hook for a $12 trillion “reparations” payment (or $35,000 for every American) to be paid out, because you have to make amends for slavery. (The $12 trillion dollar figure—being promoted by economist William Darity — is the latest figure being offered as the minimum sum necessary for mitigating the lingering effects of slavery in America.)
Never mind, of course, that slavery was outlawed decades before you ever arrived in the United States. And never mind that you came to this country with almost nothing. What wealth you have managed to acquire in the decades since is now apparently fair game to a Congress which plans to “set things right” through just another massive transfer payments program.
This sum—obviously—is not to be paid merely by those who owned slaves at some point, or by those who are their heirs. No, the modern idea of reparations most often promoted is one in which the American taxpayers overall —regardless of their background or origins—must be forced to pay. That is, in this view, countless millions of Americans descended from people who only arrived in the US after slavery was outlawed are to be taxed to pay for crimes for which they could not possibly have been responsible.
A Proper Definition of “Reparations”
This isn’t to say there is no proper role for reparations for past injustices. Any decent legal system would provide for a victim of kidnapping and forced labor to obtain repayment for the time and labor stolen from him by the kidnapper.
As Walter Block writes:
Justified reparations are nothing more and nothing less than the forced return of stolen property—even after a significant amount of time has passed. For example, if my grandfather stole a ring from your grandfather, and then bequeathed it to me through the intermediation of my father, then I am, presently, the illegitimate owner of that piece of jewelry. To take the position that reparations are always and forever unjustified is to give an imprimatur to theft, provided a sufficient time period has elapsed. In the just society, your father would have inherited the ring from his own parent, and then given it to you. It is thus not a violation of property rights, but a logical implication of them, to force me to give over this ill-gotten gain to you.
It may be both necessary and desirable to seek reparations not just from living persons but from their descendants as well.
But in order to do this with an eye toward justice, one must identify specific victims and specific perpetrators. Reparations cannot justly be paid in the abstract. As Chris Calton has noted, property rights, properly understood, are
based on concretely identifiable property rights. When a violation of a person’s property rights takes place, restitution is the logical means of compensating the victim….
But in the real world [on matters of slavery] such a claim is incredibly difficult to prove. And failure to prove a legitimate property claim means that the currently recognized property title holds. Anything else would be committing a new injustice to give the illusion of correcting an old one.
These notions are certainly nothing new. In the seventeenth century, the English philosopher John Locke had already considered the matter, as well summarized by philosopher Grant Havers:
In his Second Treatise on Government, Locke wrote that the act of “reparation…belongs only to the injured party.” Moreover, this “damnified Person has this Power of appropriating to himself, the Goods or Service of the Offender, by Right of Self-Preservation.” In short, if one person steals the property of another, then the “injured party” has every right to take it back. Yet Locke stipulated that this act of “reparation” applies only to the “injured party” who clearly participates in an exchange of goods or services….Locke’s idea of reparation, then, applies only to those who are either a first or second party to an exchange of property, not a third party.
The Moral Absurdity of Reparations from Third Parties: The Case of Immigrants
In the case of slavery in America, there are the slaves, who are the ones who were wrongfully imprisoned and who had the fruits of their labor stolen. And then there are the slave owners: those who committed the theft and the false imprisonment. Yet modern-day restitution claims are primarily based on forcing third parties to pay for wrongs to which few of today’s taxpayers have any connection.
Among these third parties are the nearly one-fifth of the US population composed of Americans who arrived from somewhere else over the past fifty years or are their descendants. According to Pew Research:
Between 1965 and 2015, new immigrants, their children and their grandchildren accounted for 55% of U.S. population growth. They added 72 million people to the nation’s population as it grew from 193 million in 1965 to 324 million in 2015.
But of course these relatively recent arrivals are not the only ones who entered the US after the thirteenth amendment was ratified. Naturally, if we extend the time horizon further back in time, the number of “new” Americans only get larger.
Between 1870 and 1900, nearly 12 million immigrants arrived, more foreign-born people than had come to the country in the preceding seventy years. If that doesn’t seem like a large number, remember that the entire population of the United States was only 38.5 million in 1870. After 1900, and until 1915, another 15 million arrived.
Meanwhile, out west the Mexican Revolution convinced hundreds of thousands of Mexicans to move to the United States. From 1910 to 1930, “the number of Mexican immigrants counted by the U.S. census tripled from 200,000 to 600,000. The actual number was probably far greater.” By the 1920s, the US was experiencing a sixteenfold increase in Mexican immigration compared to the first decade of the twentieth century.1
Yet advocates for a national reparations program would have us believe that these people and their descendants are somehow morally responsible for slavery. But how to make the case that a middle-class Mexican American, descended from refugees fleeing the Mexican Revolution, ought to be paying thousands on reparations? In many cases, this problem is simply ignored by those pushing for reparations. But in other cases they’ve invented a wide variety of new theories.
Chief among these is the idea that the US economy was built by slaves. This claim, however, is demonstrably false. The slave economy during the nineteenth century was backward, inefficient, and hardly provided a foundation for the Northern economy, which was rapidly industrializing thanks primarily to technological innovation and the superiority of free labor. When slavery was finally abolished, the Northern economy just kept growing.2
[RELATED: “Why They Keep Trying to Blame Capitalists for Slavery” by Ryan McMaken]
Proreparations advocates are unlikely to relent on this, however, because if the proreparations side can win this argument, they can then claim that all those immigrants who prospered in American over the past 150 years somehow owe their prosperity to the foundation laid by slaves decades earlier. The proreparations party is basically saying to immigrants and their descendants “That wealth you acquired since coming to America? You didn’t build that.”
There are other “arguments” as well. The “white privilege” claim can be used to assert that many immigrants—now matter how impoverished or illiterate they were when they arrived here—somehow prospered at the expense of slaves and former slaves. Superficially, this claim is relatively easy to make in the case of Irish Americans and eastern Europeans who arrived a century ago. The proreparations camp insists these immigrants were nonetheless “white presenting” and thus able to integrate easily. Their whiteness gave them access to the benefits of American capitalism—capitalism built on slavery—and thus we’re back again to concluding that even immigrants owe their prosperity to the slavery of ages past.
But not all immigrants are “white presenting.” Hispanics and Asian Americans combined make up nearly one-quarter of the US population today. Many clearly do not have a stereotypical white appearance and presumably are unable to take advantage of the free pass to riches that is “white privilege.” Moreover members of the ethnic groups within the Latin American and Asian immigrant groups have been historically faced with a wide variety of legal and cultural barriers designed to stymie their access to capital and social benefits. Yet the millions of Americans within these demographic groups are expected to foot the reparations bill as well.
The Problem with Specifics
While the case of immigrants presents an especially compelling case against forcing third parties to pay reparations for slavery, the reality is that the situation for other populations is not much more clear cut.
There is no doubt that some Americans who lived in the antebellum United States benefited from slavery, but the degree to which these populations benefited was quite diverse. Poor families in Appalachia, for example, were hardly getting rich off the toil of slaves. In fact, slavery drove down the wages of workers who had to compete with slave labor. The number of whites—both north and south—who found themselves in this position was substantial.3
Moreover, slavery was primarily a regional phenomenon and hardly something that could be described as inherently “American.” After all, by the time of the Civil War, the overwhelming majority of the US population lived in states where slavery was illegal. By midcentury, some Northern states had even refused to comply with the fugitive slave laws.
Nor were the slave patrols—an institution central to preventing and punishing slave rebellions—something that received national support. Slave patrols were staffed at the state level, often by conscripts forced into service by the state legislatures.
Given this, there is scant reason to conclude that a farmer in western Pennsylvania in 1860, where the state government had nullified the fugitive slave acts, and where slavery was illegal, is somehow legally, morally, or financially responsible for slavery.
The reason for this insistence on blaming all Americans—both past and present—has a long history. To assuage their consciences, the slave owners of old concocted all sorts of half-baked theories designed to place the blame for slavery on people other than themselves. But nowadays, this impulse is tied to the need to find as many people as possible who can pay in to a reparations program. Even if Congress were to pave the way legally for lawsuits against the heirs of slave owners of old, the obstacles to obtaining any sizable cash settlement are large. Even if specific parties could be identified today, there’s no reason to assume these people have particularly deep pockets. The US government, on the other hand, has access to trillions of dollars. It makes sense to go to where the money is, even if that means sticking a hundred million immigrant families with the bill.
1.David R. Roediger, Working toward Whiteness: How America’s Immigrants Became White: The Strange Journey from Ellis Island to the Suburbs (New York, Basic Books, 2005), p. 150.
2.It should also be noted that the population of the slave states—including slaves—was considerably smaller than the population in free states. The population of the US in 1860 was 31 million. Of those, only 12 million lived in slave states, including 4 million slaves. In the decades following emancipation, most of the immense number of new immigrants moved to what had been non-slave states before the war.
3.As historian Keri Leigh Merritt describes in detail in her book Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017), nonslaveholding whites in the South—who constituted a majority of the population—received far lower wages than they would have had they not been forced to compete with slave labor by a legal system designed to favor slave owners.
Contact Ryan McMaken
Ryan McMaken (@ryanmcmaken) is a senior editor at the Mises Institute. Send him your article submissions for the Mises Wire and The Austrian, but read article guidelines first. Ryan has degrees in economics and political science from the University of Colorado and was a housing economist for the State of Colorado. He is the author of Commie Cowboys: The Bourgeoisie and the Nation-State in the Western Genre.
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