The Other Case against Reparations

Graham Hillard

Reparations are an ethical disaster. Proceeding from a doctrine of collective guilt, they are the penalty for slavery and Jim Crow, sins of which few living Americans stand accused. An offense against common sense as well as morality, reparations would take from Bubba and give to Barack, never mind if the former is an insolvent methamphetamine addict or the latter a dweller in near-pharaonic splendor. That reparations are a hopeless cause, supported by only a quarter of Americans, makes them more of an affront to reason rather than less, for it illustrates the enthusiasm with which Democratic politicians will bang their heads against the wall in an attempt to purchase votes.

Even in pragmatic terms, reparations fail. As Michael Tanner argued on NRO last month, the real-world difficulties that would attend such payments “are obvious enough to suggest that the sudden support for reparations amounts to little more than pandering.” These difficulties are so extraordinarily compelling that one wonders how the call for reparations retains any support at all. Since the money used to pay for them would have to be raised alongside “the taxes needed to finance [Democrats’] grandiose spending plans,” reparations would “totally wreck the economy,” sentencing Americans of all races to a future of “higher unemployment, slower wage growth, and less entrepreneurship.” Because potential awardees would have to prove their eligibility in some manner, reparations would “be an invitation to perpetual litigation” and would subject America to the spectacle of government officials deciding who counts as black. (Rachel Dolezal, your moment has come.)

These are powerful objections, and the case against reparations could easily prevail on their strength alone. Yet they are not the only flaws in the reparations scheme and are, in fact, subordinate to a more fundamental blemish. Even if the practical defects of the project could be overcome, reparations simply wouldn’t work. They would not make atonement. They would neither settle nor soothe. In short, they would fulfill none of the promises explicit in the language of their proponents.

Like all political ideas unburdened by their likelihood of actually happening, reparations are frequently spoken of in outlandish terms. In 2018’s oft-cited inequality tome The Divide, for example, anthropologist Jason Hickel obliterated all previous estimates by placing America’s debt to the descendants of slaves at a mind-boggling $97 trillion — about five years’ worth of the entire country’s economic output– a figure achieved by applying the U.S. minimum wage to every hour of forced labor performed between the years 1619 and 1865. Sensing enemies to her left, presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren has argued that Native Americans and same-sex couples ought to be given money, as well. That such one-upmanship is a regular feature of a political culture that rewards rallying the base is no surprise. What is surprising — or should be — is the extent to which recent Democratic remarks about reparations have been allowed, with no scrutiny whatsoever, to take on a cast of quasi-religious utopianism.

What are these remarks? They are Kamala Harris’s assertion, to NPR, that reparations are an opportunity “to correct course.” They are Beto O’Rourke’s claim, in his recent and deeply narcissistic Medium post, that reparations are among the “necessary steps to repair the damage done.” They are Julian Castro’s argument, at South by Southwest, that we are “never going to fully heal as a country . . . until we’ve addressed” — with reparations — “the tremendous wrong that was done with slavery.” Correct course, repair, heal. What such words have in common is their promise that “a national reckoning [can] lead to spiritual renewal.” (The phrase is Ta-Nehisi Coates’s, but the sentiment belongs to all reparations-mongers.) Pay what you owe, such language suggests, and America can have its soul back. Confess your sin with a large enough check, and you can be forgiven. The problem, as any Christian knows, is that forgiveness only matters if it’s permanent. “As far as the east is from the west,” the psalmist writes, “so far does God remove our transgressions from us.” That assurance, properly understood, is life-changing. And because Christ’s redemptive work is finished, God can rightly grant it.

Can the reparations lobby?

To believe that it can, one has to believe that the political apparatus currently pursuing reparations would simply cease to exist upon their being awarded. That no further expiation of the nation’s sins would be necessary. For the Left, however, reparations are merely the icing on the existing cake of admissions preferences, minority-contracting requirements, and an eternally expanding welfare state. Ask a progressive if the $97 trillion would make unnecessary any further gestures in the direction of affirmative action, and he will laugh nervously and pretend not to understand the question. If you’re lucky, that is. These days, he might very well call forth a Twitter mob to smite you.

The reality is that reparations, however generous, would have nothing like the effect promised by those calling for them. Pay them to African-Americans today, and you will soon be called upon to pay them to others. (In this, if in nothing else, Elizabeth Warren is ahead of the curve.) Compensate one generation, and you will confirm your debt to the next. Reparations will not mend us, restore us, or bring us together. They will only divide, embitter, and impoverish.

We can’t afford to pay them. We can’t even come close to it. But even if we could, we shouldn’t.

More from National Review