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Jewish World Review July 17, 2000 /14 Tamuz, 5760

Thomas Sowell

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Reparations for slavery? -- THE FIRST THING to understand about the issue of reparations for slavery is that no money is going to be paid. The very people who are demanding reparations know it is not going to happen.

Why then are they demanding something that they know they are not going to get? Because the demagogues themselves will benefit, even if nobody else does. Stirring up historic grievances pays off in publicity and votes.

Some are saying that Congress should at least issue an official apology for slavery. But slavery is not something you apologize for, any more than you apologize for murder. You apologize for accidentally stepping on someone's toes or for playing your TV too loud at night. But, if you have ever enslaved anybody, an apology is not going to cut it. And if you never enslaved anybody, then what are you apologizing for?

The very idea of apologizing for what somebody else did is meaningless, however fashionable it has become. A scholar once said that the great economist David Ricardo "was above the unctuous phrases that cost so little and yield such ample returns." Apparently many others are not.

The only thing that would give the idea of reparations for slavery even the appearance of rationality is an assumption of collective guilt, passed down from generation to generation. But, if we start operating on the principle that people alive today are responsible for what their ancestors did in centuries past, we will be adopting a principle that can tear any society apart, especially a multi-ethnic society like the United States.

Even if we were willing to go down that dangerous road, the facts of history do not square with the demand for reparations. Millions of immigrants arrived in this country from Europe, Asia and Latin America after slavery was over. Are their descendants guilty too and expected to pay out hard cash to redeem themselves?

Even during the era of slavery, most white people owned no slaves. Are their descendants supposed to pay for the descendants of those who did?

What about the effect of all this on today's black population? Is anyone made better off by being supplied with resentments and distractions from the task of developing the capabilities that pay off in a booming economy and a high-tech world?
Whites may experience a passing annoyance over the reparations issue, but blacks -- especially young blacks -- can sustain more lasting damage from misallocating their time, attention and efforts.

Does anyone seriously suggest that blacks in America today would be better off if they were in Africa? If not, then what is the compensation for?

Sometimes it is claimed that slavery made a great contribution to the development of the American economy, from which other Americans benefitted, so that reparations would be like back pay. Although slaveowners benefitted from slavery, it is by no means obvious that there were net benefits to the economy as a whole, especially when you subtract the staggering costs of the Civil War.

Should the immoral gains of dead people be repaid by living people who are no better off than if slavery had never existed? The poorest region of the United States has long been the region in which slavery was concentrated.

The same is true of Brazil -- and was true of 18th century Europe. The worldwide track record of slavery as an economic system is bad. Slaveowners benefitted, but that is not saying that the economy as a whole benefitted. The last desperate argument for reparations is that blacks have lower incomes and occupations than whites today because of the legacy of slavery. Do the people who say this seriously believe that black and white incomes and occupations would be the same if Africans had immigrated voluntarily to this country?

Scholars who have spent years studying racial and ethnic groups in countries around the world have yet to come up with a single country where all the different groups have the same incomes and occupations. Why would people from Africa be the lone exception on this planet? Groups everywhere differ too much in too many ways to have the same outcomes.

Slavery itself was not unique to Africans. The very word "slave" derives from the name of a European people -- the Slavs, who were enslaved for centuries before the first African was brought to the Western Hemisphere. The tragic fact is that slavery existed all over the world, for thousands of years.

Unfortunately, irresponsible demagogues have also existed for thousands of years.

JWR contributor Thomas Sowell, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, is author, most recently, of The Quest for Cosmic Justice.


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© 2000, Creators Syndicate