The Tech - Online EditionMIT's oldest and largest
newspaper & the first
newspaper published
on the web
Boston Weather: 35.0°F | A Few Clouds


Reparations: An Endless Chain

Kris Schnee

This newspaper recently carried a controversy over the proposal to make the U.S. government pay “reparations” for slavery; that is, to pay one ethnic group for crimes committed against dead people by other dead people. Reparations advocates deserve applause for their intelligence in choosing America, with its deep pockets and loose purse-strings, as their mark, instead of the many other countries involved in slavery throughout history. They are also wise to demand money from the government, because this challenge is not seen as a direct attack on the property rights of individuals.

John Locke wrote that property rights stem directly from the right to liberty. The products of your work become your property unless you negotiate otherwise, because you have “mixed your labor” with them to improve upon nature’s raw materials. The profit of American slaves’ work was stolen from them by their “owners” (a small number of them black) and used to develop this country’s power and wealth. However, slavery has been illegal here for 136 years. Since 1865, America’s ill-gotten wealth has been spread around the world, used to win wars and explore space. So many people have spent their lives improving the industry, technology, and luxury of this country, adding their labor to that of the past, that to forcibly re-distribute American wealth now would rob hundreds of millions of people of their own accomplishments. We would cheat those now living to repay theft from the dead.

The standard pro-reparations argument for not burying the past is inherited sin, the idea that governments inherit debts incurred by their predecessors. We hold Third World countries accountable (perhaps unjustly) for the debts of past dictatorships, so why not hold slavery against the present-day American people and their government? Shall we say that there is no statute of limitations on reparations, and that any past sins must be paid for by the present generation? In that case, let’s look at a debt America has left unpaid for far longer than slavery: the Crusades.

The Crusades meet the criteria which reparations theorists have established for an unpaid American debt. From the 11th to the 14th centuries, white Europeans engaged in war against the Turks to deprive an ethnic group of its land and wealth. The Crusades were a sustained, systematic program of repression, endorsed by government.

The books stolen from the Turks, and from the Christian people of Constantinople (now Istanbul) when the Crusaders decided that Jerusalem was too far to walk, returned long-lost knowledge to Europe and helped to spark the Renaissance. The modern world was built by this “unjust enrichment”; therefore we owe the Muslim world our Enlightenment and all the wealth associated with it.

How does America fit into this? The Crusades were ordered by the Catholic Church, which was then the de facto international government of Europe. It commanded armies, collected taxes, wrote laws, crowned emperors, and engaged in other government functions like censorship. Its temporal power was eventually relinquished to the monarchies of Europe; in 1534 Henry VIII took the Church’s power in England for himself. Centuries later, the American revolutionaries established their own government to succeed English rule. If governments inherit the debts of their predecessors, then the United States bears guilt for the Crusades.

Of course, the Crusades are a bit distant from American history. We could also talk about how our philosophical ancestors conquered North America from the American Indians, taking their land and building a country with its resources. Were we to return all American wealth which was not at some point a product of conquest, we would have to give back pretty much everything west of Manhattan Island.

The slavery-reparations movement seeks to compensate a racial group (in an era when we find that race is imaginary and discrimination repugnant), for evils committed by people long dead, against other long-dead people, using money taken from people who have earned it. Human history is full of wrongs we can’t right without doing more harm than good, and slavery is one more issue which needs to be put to rest.