Thanks to Cory Booker's introduction of legislation and the general agreement of his party, reparations are back on the front burner. The idea is to pay the descendants of slaves some amount of money (how the amount will be determined is unclear) for decades of forced work without recompense. Of course, anyone who was a slave in the American states that allowed slavery between 1776 and 1863 has long since died, as have the slave owners. Assuming reparations will be paid from the general tax coffers, the money will then be paid to people who were never enslaved by people who never enslaved anyone.
I have a better plan, one that addresses the responsibility of two institutions that were instrumental in initiating and maintaining black slavery on the North American continent. While the responsibility of individuals—even of individual descendants of slave-owners—is impossible to ascertain, the responsibility of these two institutions is a matter of historical record, and in both cases, the institutions flourish today.
1) The British Crown
England began importing African slaves to its North American colonies in 1619 and did so at an accelerating rate until 1776 when the colonies declared their independence, founded the United States, and slowed the importation of new slaves dramatically. This means that slavery in what is now the United States existed for 147 years under British royalty, followed by 87 years of slavery under the present government. Even if the United States were made to pay, clearly much larger payments should come from Buckingham Palace.
2) The Democratic Party
The party now calling for reparations was the same institution complicit with the Confederacy in defending slavery. The Democratic Party, and not the country in general, fought to keep slavery in place until the Emancipation Proclamation and General Grant made that impossible. The party now defends itself, saying it has changed and is no longer the institution it once was. If this is an acceptable argument, why does it not apply to the country itself, which is hardly the same entity it once was? If the Democratic Party is not liable for reparations because it has changed, then neither is the country.
The impetus behind reparations is not justice but the inculcation of national guilt for the purpose of furthering a political agenda.
None of this is to excuse the nightmarish history of slavery, but great wrongs can hardly be righted at the distance of a century-and-a-half. The time to have done that was immediately after the Civil War. No less a libertarian thinker than Murray Rothbard made the case that former slaves should have been given the land they had worked and the former owners kicked out. Unfortunately, this was not considered, and even the less punitive measures of Reconstruction were opposed, primarily by the Democratic Party.
If reparations do go forward, neither of the institutions named above will be held responsible or even mentioned in the mainstream press, despite the facts of history. That's because the impetus behind reparations is not justice but the inculcation of national guilt for the purpose of furthering a political agenda.