The subject of reparations was back in the news recently, when presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris voiced their support for reparations for black Americans to redress the legacy of slavery. Warren would also consider reparations for American Indians. So I got to wondering whether reparations would be constitutional.
The subject comes up every few years and can be traced back to Martin Luther King’s call for reparations in 1963 which referred to General William Sherman’s order to give former slaves 40 acres and a mule after the Civil War. Sherman’s order was rescinded and land that had been distributed was taken back.
Does that mean that reparations should be made today? Lots of legal arguments stand in the way:
My concern is that reparations based on race breaches the principle of individual responsibility. I didn’t do anything to the black people I encounter in my life and I should not be made to pay just because I belong to a certain group. There are lots of white people whose ancestors weren’t even in the country in 1865. Group responsibility - otherwise known as guilt by association - is a very dangerous game, but let’s play it anyway, for a minute. Like a liberal friend of mine in Boston says, reparations - OK, but just wait for the counterclaim for making inner cities unlivable. Lots of blacks don’t cause problems or live outside of inner cities, you say? It doesn’t matter. The principle of group responsibility has been announced, so they shall pay no matter what they do or where they live. Here’s another claim on fairness - by the descendants of the 620,000 soldiers who died in the Civil War freeing the slaves. Under the principle of group responsibility, it is only fair and just that present-day blacks pay that counterclaim as well. So you see, all sorts of mischief starts when you breach the principle of individual responsibility and pit one group against another.
Let me suggest that we all find something better to do with our time.