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Reparation Reality Guilt Remains with Individuals, Not Their Descendants

Matt Craighead

If your great-great-grandfather committed a crime and was never caught, would you be responsible?

By any reasonable standard of justice, the answer is no. Guilt does not transfer from one generation to another. It is wrong to hang the son for the crimes of the father.

Some people, though, have lost track of not only this basic principle of justice, but many others as well. I am speaking of the advocates of reparations for slavery.

None of the arguments for reparations hold up on even the most superficial level, as David Horowitz’s recent controversial ad in The Brown Daily Herald has pointed out. The links between Americans of today and Americans of 1865 are weak at best; many families immigrated long after the end of slavery. At the same time, the vast majority of Americans never owned slaves, and many were involved in the abolition movement. Hundreds of thousands died in the Civil War to eliminate slavery.

It is also important to remember that race and slavery are not linked absolutely. Equating them denies the existence of free blacks and of black slaveholders. Furthermore, slavery, found in many primitive cultures, dates back well beyond colonial America. American slavery was just one part of the practice of slavery throughout the world, and if there were any moral justification for reparations for slavery in America, the descendants of Roman slaves from two millennia ago could put the very same case forward.

However, no such moral justification exists. Since appeals on the grounds of justice fall short, as Americans then and Americans today are linked so weakly, the backers of reparations appeal on the basis of race. The argument, summarized briefly, is that America was built on the backs of black slaves, and that whites appropriated the wealth and have used discrimination to keep it from blacks ever since. The advocates of reparations then produce an arbitrary figure, on the order of several trillion dollars, that represents America’s “debt” to blacks.

Observe that this argument is not new. Substitute “the rich” for “whites” and “the poor” for “blacks,” and you have old-fashioned class-baiting. It’s the same claim -- that the “haves” are injuring the “have-nots” by greedily accumulating wealth, and that we must correct this injustice by forcibly taking that wealth from the “haves” and giving it to the “have-nots.”

This reasoning is patently false. It relies on the incorrect premise that wealth is stagnant--that if one person is wealthy, it causes another person to be poor, and that our economy is a zero-sum game. In reality, the amount of wealth is almost always increasing. There are no hard limits to economic growth and wealth creation, just the same as there are no hard limits to human creativity and ingenuity, from which all wealth fundamentally derives.

More importantly, the arguments used in support of reparations are the same as those used in support of affirmative action. Both are claims on wealth based on the principle of race, rather than merit, and both are racist at heart. Racism, after all, is the idea that man finds his identity not as an individual, but as a member of a group with a similar skin color. It is a regression of man to the basest of all philosophies, tribalism.

To claim, for example, that whites are superior to blacks is to say that a person whose skin color is white is inherently superior than a person whose skin color is black, with no regard to any other traits of the two individuals. We all recognize that this is wrong. It is no less wrong to say that whites have injured blacks “as a group.” Again, this presupposes that a person whose skin color is black has been injured by a person whose skin color is white, with no regard to the actions of either. This is not “reverse racism,” as some have commented; racism is not a one-way street. This is racism, plain and simple.

The answer to racism is not more racism. The answer to racism -- in fact, to all forms of collectivism -- is to recognize that individuals have merit exclusively as individuals, not as members of groups. Groups do not have an identity above and beyond the individuals who belong to them. We are all members of a society, for example, but “society” does not exist per se; society is not an entity. We are all members of some race, but to speak of a race as an entity is equally wrong.

Likewise, concepts that apply to individuals, such as justice and morality, cannot be applied to groups. There is a fundamental error with the statement that “blacks have been injured by whites.” The error is in equating individual actions with group actions. There may be individual blacks who have been injured by individual whites, but for the same reason that “whites” are not an entity, “whites” cannot take collective action.

In the case of arguments for reparations and affirmative action, the error is worse. These arguments require not only that we accept without objection that “blacks have been injured by whites,” but also that “blacks should be compensated by whites for the injury they have suffered.” Again, concepts that apply only to individuals are applied indiscriminately to groups with no concern. Again, individual whites may have injured individual blacks, and if so, compensation on the individual level makes sense; that is simply justice at work. However, this statement urges whites collectively to accept responsibility for the crimes of certain individuals, and for blacks collectively to receive damages for injuries suffered by certain individuals.

Collectivism in all its forms -- racism, tribalism, socialism, communism, fascism, welfare statism -- is dangerous. As long as we tolerate any form of collectivism, all forms of collectivism will prosper. After all, if we can assign blame for slavery to whites, that legitimizes arguments that we must assign some blame to “the rich.” If we can assign compensation to blacks, that legitimizes the argument that we can assign superiority to whites.

Let us all recognize that just as merit belongs to individuals, so does guilt. In the case of reparations, the individuals are all dead and buried. Let’s bury this bad idea, too.