The Case Against Slavery Reparations

by | Mar 11, 2021

Moral responsibility is individual, not collective. It is volitional, not deterministic. Moral responsibility is based on an individual’s choices, not on one’s racial membership.

On December 7, 1993, a black Jamaican immigrant named Colin Ferguson boarded a Long Island Railroad train at Garden City and opened fire on white passengers, murdering six of them and wounding numerous others. At his subsequent trial, it came out that he was an inveterate hater of white people.

Today, some twenty-eight years later, my black college students are unfailingly good kids, hard workers who pursue an education honestly. Many of them are roughly twenty years old, born in 2000 or 2001. If I were to proclaim that they are morally responsible for the Colin Ferguson atrocity and therefore owe restitution to the victims’ families and, perhaps, to whites generally, rational people would be nonplussed. “Dr. Bernstein,” they would say, “an adult individual is responsible for his/her actions and, perhaps, for the actions of his underage children. He is not responsible for the actions of another, a person he never met and whose murderous crimes took place before he was born.”

“Nevertheless,” I respond, “they’re the same race and, by God, any person is responsible for the actions of other members of his race.”

My most rational critics would reply: “No, moral responsibility requires choice. If a student of race x in your class cheats on the midterm exam, he is responsible for it. The other students of race x in the class, who did their own work, and who neither aided nor abetted the cheater, are not responsible for the malfeasance.”

They are correct. Moral responsibility is individual, not collective. It is volitional, not deterministic. One cannot be born with the moral turpitude of one’s ancestors hardwired into one’s character. Put simply, moral responsibility is based on an individual’s choices, not on one’s racial membership.

It should be clear how this principle applies to the issue of slavery reparations. The culprits responsible for U.S. slavery are long gone. The victims are similarly long gone. If the year were, say, 1870, and former slave owners and slave traders still lived, then restitution by the guilty to the innocent victims would be appropriate, indeed morally obligatory. For an individual is responsible for their actions and, to the best of their ability, must make amends for misery they have inflicted on innocent others. But 1870 is long gone; so are those responsible for inflicting the misery, as are those who bore the brunt of it.


The false premise of racial moral responsibility

The argument for slavery reparations ignores these inconvenient truths. It rests on the pernicious and egregiously false premise of racial moral responsibility. Let’s briefly explore the logical consequences of such a collectivist idea. Let’s say, as a thought experiment, that I accepted this notion and then applied rigorous logic to think out its results.

Under this assumption, I realize that I, a white man, am morally responsible for the crime of black U.S. slavery and must make restitution. That my family was not even in the country when these atrocities were perpetrated, and arrived as immigrants only some forty years after they ended, and that I was born many decades after these events…all of this is irrelevant. I am morally responsible.

This is a depressing truth. But then another truth occurs to me: Aristotle, Newton, Shakespeare, Beethoven, Edison, and many other heroes were also white men. Their achievements redound immensely to the advancement of human life. If I am responsible for the crimes of my racial ancestors, surely I am likewise responsible for their life-giving achievements. After all, moral responsibility involves virtuous as well as vicious actions. If a student chooses to cheat on an exam, he is morally blameworthy; if he chooses to work honestly, he is morally praiseworthy. It is only because working honestly is morally right that cheating is morally wrong. Good and evil are correlative concepts. There cannot be one type of judgment in the absence of the other. Logically, there is no escape from this.

Now, I am happy. For the accomplishments of my racial ancestors have conferred enormous benefit on millions of non-whites.  Advances in agricultural science and technology, antibiotics and other medical breakthroughs, electric light, the automobile, the airplane, the field of architecture, the construction of houses and cities, the mass production of inexpensive oil and steel, the novels, the dramas, the symphonies and sonatas, the advances in philosophy and logic, the scientific theories, and a great deal more—much of it were created by white men and women. .

Henry Ford, the Wright brothers, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Victor Hugo, Ayn Rand, Fredric Chopin, Albert Einstein, the geniuses named above—especially Aristotle—and many others contributed monumentally to the furthering of human life. Don’t non-whites owe me restitution for these fulsome benefits? We must impose a “gratitude tax” on non-whites to pay back white men for the immense benefits we have conferred on their lives. Yay! I get my reparation dollars—and my pride—back. I do my happy dance.

But then another thought occurs to me. All white people, including me, benefit deeply from the accomplishments of numerous black geniuses.  We benefit from the agricultural advances of George Washington Carver, from the brilliant jazz compositions of Duke Ellington, we are inspired by the extraordinary rags-to-riches story of Sarah Breedlove/Madam C.J. Walker, history’s first self-made female millionaire, we gain from the brilliant books on economics and social theory by the immortal Thomas Sowell, from the pioneering work in children’s brain surgery by Dr. Ben Carson, by the superlative work of Denzel Washington, perhaps this generation’s finest actor, and from the creative work of many others. Because all blacks are responsible for these achievements, I am morally obliged to pay my reparations dollars right back to them.

But then, the creative work of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, and other recent/current entrepreneurs greatly benefit non-whites; therefore, as a white man, I must receive the money back.

Furthermore, violent crimes perpetrated by members of one race against members of another continue. We must factor these into our racial calculus and determine the degree of culpability shared by members of the perpetrator’s racial group and the restitution to be made to ethnic compatriots of the victim.

While we are about this, it is logically and morally incumbent to extend our racial calculus worldwide. For example, on the North American continent, in the centuries before the arrival of Europeans, the Iroquois tribe conducted genocidal warfare against the Algonquin. Surely, descendants of the Iroquois owe reparations to descendants of Algonquin survivors. In the western part of what became the U.S., the Comanche were notoriously brutal to other tribes. Similarly, their descendants owe restitution to the descendants of their tribal victims. In Asia in the 13th century, it is believed that Genghis Khan was responsible for slaughtering forty million victims—so contemporary Mongols are definitely responsible for reparations to descendants of his victims.  In the Mediterranean area, the Barbary Pirates, North African Islamic corsairs who were satraps to the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, enslaved roughly 1 million to 1.25 million white European Christians during the early centuries of the modern era—and under horrific conditions. Clearly, North Africans today owe restitution to white people. One final example of many that could be adduced: Powerful African tribes conquered and enslaved members of weaker tribes; they sold some of those slaves to European slave traders. When a burgeoning abolitionist movement motivated European powers to terminate human slavery in their lands, these powerful tribes sent emissaries to European capitals, pleading for a continuation of the lucrative slave trade. Descendants of these tribes owe restitution to descendants of the conquered tribes.  And the beat goes on…endlessly.

An interesting conundrum involves bi-racial Americans, for example, the super-wealthy New York Yankees slugger, Giancarlo Stanton, whose father is white and whose mother is black. Does the white part of Stanton pay reparations to the black part of him? Does he owe money to his mother but is owed money by his father? Should the white half of him pay reparations to black Americans while the black half receives reparations from white Americans?


The economic difference between slavery and freedom

My critics will respond: “But white Americans benefited from black slavery—and still do.” However, this claim is egregiously false.   Let’s go back in time and then push our analysis forward. The slave-holding South was far poorer than the freer North. One reason, although not the only one, is that slavery is not a viable economic system; hiring free laborers is much more profitable. Slavery is expensive: Slaves must be bought, fed, housed, clothed, and medically cared for. They are motivated to do only as much work as necessary to avoid the lash, and no more. Fences must be built to herd them in and/or slave patrols deployed to hunt down fugitives. Militias must be maintained to guard against such slave uprisings as those of Gabriel Prosser, Denmark Vesey, and Nat Turner—and against raids by such fervent abolitionists as John Brown. Indeed, abolitionism must be fought tooth and nail—and slave states resorted to opening mail to remove offending anti-slavery literature.

Hiring free laborers obviates all of this, and such workers can be motivated to increased productivity by offering higher wages. Adam Smith explained this a long time ago: Slavery is not about profits—it is about power, it is about domination over others.[i]    Everybody, including plantation owners, would profit by ending (or never beginning) slavery. All of the labor, time, and wealth invested in trading for slaves with African tribal chiefs, building ships for the slave trade, manning those vessels, forming patrols to hunt fugitives, maintaining armed militias, combating abolitionism, and fighting a bloody war against the North…all of it could be deployed in productive work, in building and constructing, rather than in initiating force against innocent victims. The South would have been more productive and more profitable. But power-lust and brute force are seductive lures—and often lead men to act against their rational self-interest.

Related, slave drivers have a vested interest in keeping slaves uneducated and ignorant, and in many slave states it was illegal to educate slaves ; for educated men are far more likely to recognize the inalienable moral right of each individual to liberty. Note that Prosser, Vesey, and Turner were all educated men who taught their compatriots the principles of the American Revolution. But Ayn Rand demonstrated brilliantly in Atlas Shrugged that the mind, not whip-driven slave labor, is mankind’s survival instrument. It is human intelligence that has created the life-giving advances in the arts, in philosophy and logic, in science and technology. If slaves were free, some percentage of them would pursue education. Some would become teachers, professors, doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs, writers, artists, and so forth, creating vast human capital enriching American society. The economic difference between slavery and freedom can be summed up in the microcosm, in the life of George Washington Carver: Think of the difference in productive output between Carver the enslaved field hand—and Carver the agricultural scientist whose innovations substantially improved crop yields for Southern farmers, white and black. Economically, there is no comparison between freedom and slavery.

White Americans have greatly benefited from the creative work of George Washington Carver and other black geniuses. But nobody benefits from slavery. The foregone benefits of the brutal system vastly outweigh its relatively meager productivity.


Slavery reparations must be dismissed by all honest persons

Morally, the idea of slavery reparations rests on the reprehensible claim of racial—rather than individual—responsibility. Economically, it rests on the false premise that white Americans, or anybody, profit from slavery. The theory is both false and despicable—and, as such, must be dismissed by all honest persons.

Ayn Rand has shown us what will benefit black, as well as all other Americans: A culture that celebrates the mind, and a politics that upholds inalienable individual rights. When this occurs in American culture, and especially in black urban neighborhoods, we will witness a Renaissance, an outpouring of creative minds—black, Asian, white, and bi-racial—whose achievements in every intellectual field will redound to the betterment of all human lives, as have the advances wrought by the towering geniuses briefly mentioned above.


[i] Barry Weingast, “Adam Smith’s Theory of the Persistence of Slavery and its Abolition in Western Europe, Retrieved on March 9, 2021.

Andrew Bernstein holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the City University of New York. He lectures all over the world. He is a senior writer for the Ayn Rand Institute. He has written numerous books, including his novel, A Dearth of Eagles, recently published and available from Amazon.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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