Commentary: Reparations: The Problems with Social Justice Economics

by Doug McCullough


Senators Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren, as well as former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro, have embraced the idea of reparations for the descendants of slaves as part of their 2020 presidential bids. As Castro said on MSNBC’s Hardball,

It is interesting to me that under our Constitution and otherwise, that we compensate people if we take their property. Shouldn’t we compensate people if they were property sanctioned by the state?

Writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates have made a sympathetic case for reparations for the crime of slavery:

Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy. Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole.

You will get no argument from me about the moral repugnance of slavery or racial injustice. But putting reparations in practice today would be challenging… and misguided.

Slippery Slope

Slavery, lynchings, Jim Crow laws, and all the other injustices that flowed from the hideous institution of slavery are some of the starkest blemishes on American history. Yet some have described the treatment by white settlers of indigenous peoples and the forcible removal of natives with the Trail of Tears as genocide. If we offer compensation to the descendants of slaves, how would we deny similar compensation to the descendants of displaced and victimized indigenous people?

Once we go down the path of compensating descendants of historic victims, there will be no end to the demand of economic “justice.” Reparations, and intersectionality economics more generally, would create perverse incentives to claim historic victim status, misappropriate the identity of other groups of people, and relitigate our historical grievances.

There are many practical problems with a reparations policy. Who would be entitled to a reparations subsidy? Would all people of color or only verifiable descendants of slaves? Would it be enough to show that a person is of African bloodline, or would documented historical proof of slave ancestors be required?

America today is racially diverse. Interracial marriage, once illegal, is now common. Would a person with a mixed bloodline be entitled to a full reparations subsidy? What would be the minimum percentage of African genetics to qualify for a subsidy?

Impossible Logistics

Then there is the “funding” side. Who would pay the taxes required to fund these reparations? If the reparations are paid as a form of justice, the descendants of slaves would presumably not be paying the tax to fund the reparations. So how do we determine who is to pay this tax? Should new immigrants to this country, regardless of the color of their skin, be subject to a reparations tax? Neither they nor their ancestors were responsible for slavery.

Should all non-African lineage people be subject to this tax? Does that include descendants of the Union Army who fought and/or died to free slaves?

Once we are past these fundamental questions, we have to get into the paperwork. How would individuals apply for the subsidies and tax breaks? Would they include DNA test results in their tax returns? Would they hire historical investigators to write history reports about ancestors and each of the particular injustices those ancestors suffered?

The aims of our social and economic policies should be to build a modern, forward-looking society that offers equal protection before the law to all people regardless of race, color, creed, or sexual identity. The concept of reparations and the ensuing demand for intersectionality taxes and subsidies for other victim groups would balkanize our society.

We should not empower politicians, bureaucrats, or judges to dole out “justice” based on their perceptions of our worthiness as citizens under some intersectionality metric or the historic sins of long-dead people with whom we might share some genetics or heritage.

Inequity and suffering are real. But society must not respond to racial injustice by codifying our racial identities. Our laws, including taxes, subsidies, and public assistance, should be colorblind. Remedies for injustice should be narrowly tailored to compensate victims and required recompense from the victimizers.

As Hans Bader has explained with respect to the Japanese-Americans interned during World War II, it is legal and appropriate for the “federal government to compensate the direct, immediate victims of its own racial discrimination.” By contrast, if the government offered different levels of benefits based on race, heritage, or other “class” status, it would incentivize claiming victim status, appropriating other groups’ identities, and a never-ending re-litigation of the sins of our forefathers.

To build a forward-looking, pluralistic society, our policies should aim to foster opportunity for everyone regardless of race, color, creed, or sexual identity. The remaining vestiges of bigotry in our laws and institutions should be eliminated. But social justice economics would permanently define us by our race, victim status, and the history of our ancestors. Instead, our focus should be on breaking down barriers to prosperity and equal treatment under the law for all Americans.

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