Reparations Redux - A Response to My Critics
Earlier this week, I published a piece encouraging President Donald Trump to endorse a policy of reparations for slavery. I expected that this idea would ruffle feathers on both sides of the political aisle, and it certainly did. Reagan Republicans predictably recoiled from what they considered the policy’s “collectivism,” and Democrats instinctively hated the idea that Trump could be a moral leader on any issue. However, some of the objections were substantial, and I deal with them, here.
1. Shouldn’t reparations be aimed at fixing existing racism?
Absolutely not. Reparations should be aimed at repairing a broken national conscience. Existing racism is a matter of political dispute between Americans of good faith on both sides of the political aisle. Americans are deeply divided about its import, its causes, and what should be done about it. The sin of slavery, however, is not a matter of dispute. All Americans agree that slavery was an egregious moral evil.
Reparations policy should begin from the place of unanimous agreement among Americans. Slavery is evil. American federal policy condoned and endorsed that evil. After emancipation, slaves were never compensated for the suffering they endured, and were largely left to fend for themselves. Some managed to succeed anyway, many others did not.
Whatever your views about the continuing impact of America’s past sin, we can all agree that it was a sin—a national sin. Sin can be atoned for, and even forgiven. That is why I believe Trump should sit down with leaders of the black community, especially those who descend from slave families, and discuss what measures America can take for to atone for its sin. The important question should be this:
“What can America do, right now, to fully demonstrate its contrition and earn forgiveness from the descendants of slaves for its part in the slave trade?”
This has nothing to do with the problem of ongoing racism. Even if racism continues to be a problem in America, that is not the point of reparations. That said, I do expect that America will have greater moral clarity on the issue of ongoing racism once the weight of its guilt over the sin of slavery has been lifted from the American conscience.
2. Is it inherently unjust to give reparations to descendants that never suffered slavery themselves?
This objection typically comes from Reagan conservatives who see reparations as a type of “social justice” that automatically violates individual justice. For these types, most forms of redistributive policy are inherently problematic because taxes are taken at the point of a gun from one person in order to be given to another. As a Tea Party conservative, these arguments have resonance with me. However, as the preamble to the Constitution states, the purpose for creating a federal government was to:
“...form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”
This means that not all taxation is theft. Public funds used for the military (common defense) are not theft, public funds used to suppress rebellion (insure domestic tranquility) are not theft, public funds that promote the general welfare are not theft, and so on. Do not get me wrong, I do not think “general Welfare” has anything to do with modern "welfare" policies which are aimed at the well-being of particular groups. In my view, "general Welfare" only refers to policies which benefit the nation as a whole.
In my opinion, the use of public funds to make reparations both “promotes the general Welfare" and helps make “a more perfect Union.” Right now, America’s guilt over slavery is manifesting in pathological ways, as Americans desperately try to find ways to blame the continued struggle of the black community on current policies or implicit bias. Americans cannot seem to shake the idea that America itself is somehow to blame for this ongoing problem. Relieving the national conscience of the burden of the terrible injustice of slavery would not only benefit the descendants of slaves, but would release every American from the bondage to this social guilt.
3. Conservatives will never go along with this, will they?
Conservatives naturally recoil from the idea of reparations. But I do not believe they are reacting to the policy itself, but rather to the way they imagine their political enemies might use it. Ever since the administration of Barack Obama, conservatives now largely assume that the goal of the Democrat party is not racial conciliation, but rather the continued use of white guilt to extract a never-ending list of demands their political opponents. The recent move of the political Left into fights against “implicit bias” and “microaggressions” justifies conservative fears.
These fears can be allayed if reparations policy is implemented by President Trump. By going directly to leaders in the black community, Trump could bypass white Liberal Democrats altogether. He could even make part of the deal require that the leaders in the black community make public statements to the effect that repairs are being made, and that the sin of the federal government’s participation in the slave trade is forgiven.
Imagine the following Trump speech on the eve of the passage of a reparations bill:
“America is the greatest nation in the world. No other nation fought a Civil War to emancipate its slave population. No other nation in the world kept fighting for generations against the natural, tribal impulses that kept the two communities apart—and achieved integration! No other nation in the world would not rest until the whole of the law made no distinction of race or ethnicity.
Today, America is once again the moral leader of the free world. Today, we ask God for forgiveness for the part our federal government played in the global slave trade. And, we offer up this sacrifice as an atonement for our sin. We encourage the nations of the world to follow America’s example and consider making amends for the part they played in slavery as well. We encourage the nations of Europe to correct past injustices done to our Island brothers and sisters in places like Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
May this be a moment that is remembered throughout history, when the stain of slavery was wiped from the conscience of America, and black and white Americans moved forward into a new era of unity and allegiance to the American Dream!”
After to listening to that speech, I do not believe even the most staunchly libertarian conservative would be able to resist fist-pumping into the air and chanting "U.S.A, U.S.A!"