The logic of reparations

Over the years, the subject of reparation payments to the descendants of slaves has come and gone.  Recently, the subject has received new life from a Democratic Congress.  It is somewhat understandable in that politicians (especially Democratic politicians) have long made use of the tendency of voters to respond favorably to the possibility they could get free money.

The legal theory behind reparations is that if a person had suffered an economic loss as a result of the action of another person, he would be able to seek a civil remedy.  Critical to this process is the measurement of the degree of economic loss the first person experienced.

The process is further complicated if, instead of attempting to calculate the loss incurred by a person, one attempts to calculate the loss incurred to his great-great-grandchildren.  However, setting aside for the moment the novel idea of heritability of injury, we need to take a fresh look at the degree of loss.

One method of calculating loss is to extrapolate what the circumstance would be if there had been no intervention by the second party.  For example, if a person had $100 taken from him by another person, the first person would be $100 richer if the second person had not taken action.  One might conclude that the first person is entitled to a reparation of $100.

If one were to contrast the economic advantage of a life lived by a native of Africa whose ancestors had not been taken in slavery with a black American whose ancestors had been taken in slavery, one might be inclined to conclude that there is no advantage to having remained in Africa.  In fact, one can make a case that such actions resulted in a benefit rather than a loss.

Extending this thinking, one could also make the case that reparations are due to the person who provided the benefit.  It is difficult to imagine a Democratic congressman seeking to advance his re-election prospects on the basis of getting black people to pay white people for the better life they now enjoy in contrast to the life their distant cousins now enjoy in Africa.