A libertarian argument for slavery reparations

Many libertarians, free enterprisers and supporters of laissez-faire capitalism oppose reparations to Black Americans for slavery. Their arguments follow from those of philosopher John Locke, one of their heroes, that reparations must be paid by the evildoer to the sufferer. But in the case of former slaveowners and former slaves, this isn’t possible now, since this shameful episode in our history occurred almost two centuries ago.

Here is another argument against reparations: stipulate that my great-great-great grandfather owned slaves; that has nothing whatsoever to do with me. It is unjust to visit the sins of the father on the son, let alone the sins of relatives who lived eons ago. Based on the sanctity of private property I am not at all a good candidate to pay for these monstrosities.

In the view of conservative commentator David Horowitz, who is highly outspoken on this matter: “Examined closely, the claim for reparations is factually tendentious, morally incoherent and racially incendiary.”

We can appreciate the passion for justice of such folk who reject reparations. However, they misinterpret their own philosophy.

Suppose my grandfather stole a wristwatch from your grandfather. Then, my grandfather passed it down to my dad, who gave it to me. Posit that had this theft not taken place, your granddad would have given the watch to your father, and from him it would have passed on to you. Should I be compelled, by law, to hand over that watch to you? It still has your grandfather’s initials on it. Stipulate that there is no dispute over these facts. Those who oppose reparations say I should keep it. But to take this perspective is to promote theft.

No, the correct position is that I owe you that watch. As the unwitting inheritor of stolen property, I am not a criminal. Rather, I am an innocent holder of stolen property. But it is stolen nonetheless.

That is the case for reparations in a nutshell. But it is a limited one. In the case of defensible reparations for slavery, it is limited to individuals who can prove that labor was stolen from their forebears through slavery.

Ta Nehisi Coates, Henry Louis Gates and Randall Robinson are three of the most high-profile supporters of such reparations. However, they go off the rails, just as do those on the opposite side of the political spectrum. For in their view all White Americans owe a debt for this disgraceful episode to all Black Americans. But that is not just either.

For one, the predecessors of many Black Americans in this country arrived here after 1865, when this “curious institution” was thankfully ended. Second, the grandparents of many White Americans now living in this country also landed here after the demise of slavery. It is thus difficult to see the justice of compelling reparations from the nation as a whole to simply anyone who is a Black American, given these facts.

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Only the moderate position between these two extremes is correct. Possession is nine-tenths of the law. If the descendents of slaves can prove their ancestors were enslaved on a particular plantation, then the present owners of that terrain are innocent holders of stolen property, and must be compelled to give it up to the rightful owners. These are the great-grandchildren of the slaves who shuld have been given that acreage when they were freed.

However, suppose there were 10 slaves on a given farm, and the descendent of only one of them can prove this connection. Is he entitled to the entire property? No, only to one tenth of it, the part his forebear should have received.

Suppose this plantation was sold several times since 1865. The present owners just arrived in this country. They have purchased that land in good faith, innocently. Who has a better claim to this land, they, or the Black descendent of slaves who worked? The latter does. The law properly so stipulates this regarding all stolen property. The only remedy for the present owners is to revert to the party that sold them this acreage.

Walter E. Block is the Harold E. Wirth Eminent Scholar Endowed Chair and professor of economics at Loyola University New Orleans. He is a libertarian and adherent of the Austrian school of economics.

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