Senate Resolution 26, apologising for slavery, ends with the disclaimer Nothing in this resolution (a) authorizes or supports any claim against the United States; or (b) serves as a settlement of any claim against the United States. In other words, a typical government apology a faux admission of responsibility, without any of the ordinary consequences of such admission.
It goes without saying that slavery was a gross violation of human rights. Justice would demand that all the perpetrators that includes slave owners and African and Arab slave sellers make compensatory reparation payments to victims. Since slaves, slave owners and slave sellers are no longer with us, such compensation is beyond our reach and a matter to be settled in the world beyond.
But there are two problems with this argument. First, although the individual slave owners and traders may be dead, the specific institutions that authorised and enforced slavery for a century and Jim Crow for a century after that namely the u.s. government plus various state governments are still around.
Williams tries to head off this argument by saying:
Who pays? Dont say the government, because the government doesnt have any money that it doesnt first take from some American.
But even if one holds, as this argument seems to imply, that victims of the state should never sue the government for money, on the grounds that all government revenues are unjustly extracted from the taxpayers (and Im not a sure whether Williams intends that conclusion), the government could at the very least offer tax credits to the heirs of its victims. Of course this is a suboptimal solution (since the government has no right to tax anybody in the first place, and since merely refraining from taking is not equivalent to giving), but it would be better than nothing.
In any case, the government also has numerous assets that were produced by slave labour such as the u.s. capitol building, which it isnt employing for any useful purpose anyway. (Even if I were to grant, counterfactually, that the u.s. congress has legitimate business to transact, I dont see why they couldnt do it by email.) So reparations could take the form of handing out ownership shares of assets like the capitol building. Did tax revenue also go into its construction? Fine, then compute the relative percentages and hand out shares accordingly.
(Although Williams doesnt quite use it here, one sometimes sees people give the following argument: Hundreds of thousands of Union troops died to free the slaves; what more reparations can one possibly ask from the government? But even if one grants the dubious premise that those deaths were primarily in the service of ending slavery and also ignores the fact that those mostly conscripted troops have a legitimate claim to compensation themselves merely ending slavery does not constitute reparations for slavery. Suppose I steal your lunch money every day for years, and then one day I stop doing it; dont I still owe you your past money back? And if instead of ceasing to steal your money I now start stealing only half as much as before as when slavery gives way to Jim Crow calling that reparations is truly laughable.)
Passing from claims against the government to claims against slaveowners and traders, Williamss argument that the latter are dead and beyond the reach of human justice suggests that he thinks having to pay reparations is a punishment, and as such should be inflicted only upon the guilty. But its also a matter of property rights. As Rothbard points out in The Ethics of Liberty (see especially chapters 9, 10, and 11), if I inherit property that my grandparents stole from your grandparents, then it remains rightfully yours and I have to give it back to you even if Im not the one who stole it (not in order to punish me but in order to return your property to you); and since slaves who produced wealth for their owners under threat were the rightful owners of that wealth (not having signed any legitimate contract to surrender the products of their labour), theres at least some argument that those who have inherited the products of slave labour owe it back to the descendants of the original producers.
Now there are various counter-arguments one could give to this. One could argue that its too difficult to trace the heirs of victims and perpetrators for each specific bit of slave-produced property (a point that will be true enough in many cases, but without being true in all). One could maintain that a natural-law equivalent of the statute of limitations has passed. One could, furthermore, point out that most existing reparation proposals favour handing out reparations to the descendants of slaves generically without tracing specific claims involving specific people which is harder to defend on Rothbardian grounds. Im not sure any of those arguments are decisive, but theyre certainly legitimate points to raise. But those arent precisely the arguments Williams appeals to (at least in this piece; Im pretty sure hes written about the topic elsewhere, but Im just responding to this specific article). Admittedly, hes not arguing against a Rothbardian version of a reparations proposal; but he writes as though any reparations proposal would be absurd, and I dont think hes made the case.
Are the millions of Europeans, Asians and Latin Americans who immigrated to the United States in the 20th century responsible for slavery, and should they be forced to cough up reparations money? What about descendants of Northern whites who fought and died in the name of freeing slaves? Should they cough up reparations money for black Americans? What about non-slave-owning Southern whites the majority of whites in the region should they be made to pay reparations?
Again, from a Rothbardian standpoint it has nothing to do with responsibility (and so Williams references to white guilt are beside the point); a good-faith receiver of stolen goods still has an obligation to return them, since they remain someone elses property.
But other blacks owned slaves for the same reason whites owned slaves to work farms or plantations. Are descendants of these blacks eligible and deserving of reparations?
Sure, why not?
Should Congress haul representatives of Ghana, Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Muslim states before them and demand they compensate American blacks because of their ancestors involvement in capturing and selling slaves?
Since congress doesnt have jurisdiction over those states, this is a red herring. (Of course it doesnt have legitimate jurisdiction over anybody; but Williams discussion is operating within the assumed framework of the present system.)
Reparations advocates make the foolish unchallenged pronouncement that the United States became rich on the backs of free, black labor. Thats utter nonsense. Slavery has never had a very good record of producing wealth. Think about it. Slavery was all over the South. Buying into the reparations nonsense, youd have to conclude that the antebellum South was rich and the slave-starved North was poor. The truth of the matter is just the opposite. In fact, the poorest states and regions of our country were places where slavery flourished: Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia, while the richest states and regions were those where slavery was absent: Pennsylvania, New York and Massachusetts.
Even leaving aside the point that you shouldnt call a position unchallenged when youre in the middle of challenging it (and I suspect even heretofore unchallenged would be inaccurate), this strikes me as another bad argument. First, even if the regions in which slavery flourished tended to be poorer, the individuals who were involved in the slave trade and in plantation farming often grew enormously rich as did the governments those individuals controlled. Second, suppose I grow rich by robbing banks on even-numbered days and engaging in productive commerce on odd-numbered days, but would have grown even richer if Id stuck to productive commerce the whole time. The fact that engaging in predation won me less wealth than I would otherwise have had doesnt change the fact that a substantial percentage of the wealth I actually won, in the history that actually occurred, was achieved via predation.
(This appeal to counterfactuals reminds me of the truly dreadful argument one sometimes sees, to the effect that descendants of slaves arent owed reparations because theyre actually better off in the u.s. than they would be if their ancestors had remained in Africa. Its true enough that theyre better off not because otherwise theyd have been born in Africa, which is what people who offer this argument usually mean, but because otherwise they most likely would never have existed; but this is irrelevant to the question of reparations. Suppose I steal all of your money, and as a result you have to cancel your overseas vacation and a good thing too, because the plane you would have taken ends up crashing. So you are, as things turned out, better off because I robbed you. But does that mean I dont owe you your money back?)
Williams closes by linking to a document in which he offers a full and general amnesty and pardon to all persons of European ancestry, for both their own grievances, and those of their forebears, against my people. But first, Williams has no authority to offer amnesty for crimes against anyone but himself and so not for crimes against his people (unless I missed it when the black community unanimously selected him as their spokesperson and legal agent). And second, as his grant of amnesty is worded it implies that all crimes by whites against blacks, no matter how recent, are hereby forgiven; I wonder whether Williams realises that he has just attempted to authorise, inter alia, the percentage placed on blacks of all taxes and regulations currently imposed by white legislators. (Anyway grievance is the wrong word; As crime against B isnt a grievance against B, its a basis for Bs grievance against A.)
Clarificatory addendum: When I wrote Sure, why not? above, I meant Sure, why shouldnt descendants of those slaves be compensated? and not Sure, why shouldnt descendants of those slaveowners be compensated? I think I misread which group these blacks was referring to.