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.
Walter Williams takes the resolution as an opportunity to offer some arguments against slavery reparations. (CHT LRC.) But I dont think his arguments are very good.
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.
I thank you for writing this, as I feel that if I wrote it I might be accused of something. This whole incident with professor Gates and the police has showed me some “anti-state” libertarians in a whole new light (I do not intend to expand on this point yet). This was pretty explicitly known as a potential use for Rothbard’s Confiscation/Homestead Principle, though I think he would’ve considered it too late for justice to be done in that case.
Walter Williams and Rush Limbaugh have jokingly proclaimed themselves as the leaders of each others’ races (with Rush being a black leader, and Williams being a white leader), so his apparent claims of also being a black leader (authority, legal agency, voice) would seem to be quite a power grab for Williams 😀
I should also note that if people would like to think of slavery and anything similar to it as being long dead and gone on this continent, with all of the perpetrators and victims having departed this world, they’ll have to contend with the evidence brought up here:
http://www.slaverybyanothername.com/ Among other places.
Hopefully one day you’ll write up a more detailed explanation of this “natural-law equivalent of the statute of limitations “. I’ve listened to the seminar many times now (I always get something new out of it with every listen) and I know that you bring it up in the context of American Indians, and refer to something from Ancient Rome (Cicero I believe). I was never sure if you had in mind some method of determining when something shifts from restoration fulfilling the requirements of justice, to compensation fulfilling the requirements of justice.
I tend to treat claims regarding the improved welfare of Africans in the Americas, compared to what would’ve been had they not been enslaved, murdered, raped, whipped, tortured, scapegoated, oppressed, ignored, denied, and pitied for centuries as being grossly ignorant of the lesson of Bastiat’s Broken Window Fallacy. It’s certainly one of the most blatant that I encounter. And unfortunately one I’ve heard sometimes from some so-called “libertarians”.
The existence of the Libertarian Left makes me much more comfortable with the political and economic ways of thinking that I’ve adopted over the years. Thank you for doing what you do.
if people would like to think of slavery and anything similar to it as being long dead and gone on this continent, with all of the perpetrators and victims having departed this world, they’ll have to contend with the evidence brought up here
Yup. That’s why I like to point out that so-called “emancipation” amounted in practice to the replacement of one form of legally imposed white supremacy by another.
I was never sure if you had in mind some method of determining when something shifts from restoration fulfilling the requirements of justice, to compensation fulfilling the requirements of justice.
Nah, all I have — appropriately enough for an Austrian — is an ordinal argument, not a cardinal one. I mean, I have an argument for the presumption’s shifting over time, but no argument for determining the length of the time period (other than “choose as the wise person would choose”).
I tend to treat claims regarding the improved welfare of Africans in the Americas, compared to what would’ve been had they not been enslaved, murdered, raped, whipped, tortured, scapegoated, oppressed, ignored, denied, and pitied for centuries as being grossly ignorant of the lesson of Bastiat’s Broken Window Fallacy.
Plus the whole argument about being better off than in Africa ignores the role of European colonialism in making present-day Africa such a bad place to live.
The existence of the Libertarian Left makes me much more comfortable with the political and economic ways of thinking that I’ve adopted over the years. Thank you for doing what you do.
As far as I know black incomes are lower than white incomes and black imprisonment rates are higher than white imprisonment rates. We can have a debate with Walter Williams about whether it’s time to “move on” from slavery when these factors are equalized.
So, do you want more white people in jail, less black people, or some combination of both?
Who do you want to enlist to pull this off?
I think the idea of liquidating government assets for reparations is a great one. You could take the huge amounts of federal land out West and divide that up, which would be a double improvement: first, paying some reparations, and second, getting all that land out of the state’s hands.
Even those libertarians the first commenter mentioned, the ones who don’t support reparations because they believe the reparations are not owed, should still be in favor of this. It’s always preferable to get resources away from the state and into private ownership, where they can do some good.
I like your idea JL, about the land. If you’ve seen a map of how much land the gov’t owns in the west, it’s pretty enourmous. Simply dividing that among the existing descendants of slaves would leave them each with a nice chunk of land I think.
Here’s that map:
I think we should give some of it to Israel.
An especially useful consequence of doing this is that so much of the Western land is, I take it, currently occupied by the defense establishment. What a shame it would be if it were no longer available for military purposes.
I think the problem is that the government has a limited amount of assets and a huge amount of debts, commitments, and tort liabilities. It’s hard to develop an objective set of criteria for deciding who gets the first claim on the assets. Since the process of liquidating the government would likely be run by the government, the implementation would tend to be incompetent if not evil. Hoppe argues instead for more of land-to-the-tiller model of distributing state property, which at least has the benefit of being decentralised. However, it wouldn’t leave much for reparations.
It looks a lot like the Plains Indians might have prior claims on a considerable portion of that Western land. And I’d also like to see the reparations debate expanded to cover the considerable portion of white settlers through the Revolution who were convicts or indentured servants. The death rate among transported convicts in those ships was pretty atrocious, and the combination of harsh corporal punishment and the arbitrary power of masters to punitively extend terms of indenture meant that indenture was seldom the seven-year period portrayed in the publik skool history books.
Yeah I remember reading about the 7 year thing in skool, never gave it much thought. Knowing what I know now I’d imagine it was a lot longer in many cases.
I’m sure you realize that tax credits (or even just deductions) represent a greater burden on the rest of us, as the difference must be made up through higher rates or indirectly by inflation.
The idea of a gov’t giveaway program, with all the inherent overhead and rampant fraud doesn’t much appeal to me, but if it were state property, that softens the blow a bit. I would first want to see proceeds of state auctions paying off the most direct of legitimate state debts, such as to the little old ladies who paid into the SS system.
I think I’m in favor of enabling civil cases between descendants, though it would be difficult in many cases to prove a chain of inheritance. I think everyone here would agree that only tangible goods received as adults, and not privilege bestowed during childhood, that can be legitimately claimed.
as the difference must be made up through higher rates or indirectly by inflation
Why must the difference be made up?
I assumed your position was to separate the extraction process from the expected reaction. I just wanted it spelled out. think I agree.
I find it hilarious that an anarchist would advocate the state pay restitution to prior victims when it is a parasitic organization whose mere existence is an injustice.
Who are you referring to?
I was referring to you, but I apologize. I may have been a been hasty. I’m considering this issue further.
Well, I didn’t advocate it, I just said Williams’ arguments against it don’t work.
Glad to hear I just misunderstood.
Really, getting the assets out of the state’s hands for any reason (reparations, payment in lieu of Social Security that can’t be paid, an apology for needlessly imprisoning War on Drugs victims, giving dogs a place to play fetch, anything) is a good reason.
I realise this is a fair bit of a tangent, but I would like to ask if anyone can recommend a book which cogently discusses the process of desocialising state assets at the end of the Soviet Union. I have often wondered what went wrong. The conventional accout is simply, “Bad capitalists monopolised the resources because of greed”. As far as I know, this assertion is true, but it is treated as an explanation, which it isn’t. How did they arrange to monopolise the assets? What went wrong?
What happened was that Yeltsin’s rich oligarch buddies were given Russia’s richest assets, such as the Sibneft oil company, during the privatization process, due to their influence and friendship with Yeltsin. These state assets should have been given to the people who worked the plants and their descendants, but were instead handed away at a fraction of their value (10% at most). Had nothing at all to do with free markets or anything like that.
To name three of these oligarchs, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Boris Berezovsky, and Roman Abramovich. That should give you a good start as far as googling info. Reading about these events will increase your cynicism regarding world affairs exponentially.
A former boss of mine once learned that he was descended from slaves and slave owners. His thoughts on reparations: “I wrote myself a check, and that settled that.”
Roderick: “a good-faith receiver of stolen goods still has an obligation to return them, since they remain someone else’s property.”
Waitasec. If you grant the mutualist contention that Georgist, mutualist, and Lockean property views are all just on some spectrum and can all be considered libertarian, then why do stolen goods remain property of the (previous) owner–? After all, he’s not the occupier any more. Sure, sure, it’s not completely his “fault,” but so what?
Now, I’ll grant you that in the law there is an idea of right of possession that is distinct from right of ownership. The legal possessor, if physically ousted from his property, can regain it by an appropriate legal action merely by showing he was the possessor and was ousted–ownership need not be proved. I think mutualism might basically view property rights the way the law views a legal right to possess. But this is not ownership.
But Roderick’s never claimed to be a mutualist, Stephan. And the argument here was an argument about the efficacy of Williams’s arguments, not an argument for Roderick’s own view. That view could perfectly well be, as it seems to me it is, fairly Lockean. One could perfectly well be a Lockean oneself, and regard Lockean views as preferable to mutualist or Georgist ones, while simultaneously–since this is the way you framed things–regard mutualist and Georgist views as libertarian. Unless, of course, being libertarian and being correct are synonymous. Where’s the problem?