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Saturday, February 25, 2023

The (Libertarian) Case for Slavery Reparations

The case for (limited) reparations can be found in a proper understanding of property rights.

Image Credit: Gerry Popplestone-Flickr | CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Many libertarians, free enterprisers, and supporters of laissez-faire capitalism oppose reparations to black people for slavery. They argue that according to philosopher John Locke, one of their heroes, reparations must be paid by the evildoer to the sufferer. But neither is possible now, since this shameful episode in our history occurred almost two centuries ago.

There are other arguments against reparations as well. For instance, stipulate that my great-great-great grandfather owned slaves; that has nothing whatsoever to do with me. It is unjust to visit the sins of the father on the son, let alone the sins of relatives who lived centuries ago. Based on the sanctity of private property, I am not at all a good candidate to pay for these monstrosities.

Here is another rejection, by Duke University scholar John Staddon:

“…21st-century white people, who were not party to the moral crime of slavery, should make reparations to 21st-century black people who were not victims of it. Whatever the plight of modern African Americans, if those responsible are dead, why should the living, most of whom are not even descendants of the oppressors, pay?”

Another counter-argument is that 21st-century American blacks are surely now better off than if their ancestors had remained in Africa—hence there is no harm to compensate.

In the view of David Horowitz, who is highly outspoken on this matter: “Examined closely, the claim for reparations is factually tendentious, morally incoherent and racially incendiary.”

Problems With the Anti-Reparations Position

We can appreciate the passion for justice of such folk who reject reparations. However, they misinterpret their own philosophy.

Suppose my grandfather stole a wristwatch from your grandfather. Then, my grandfather passed it down to my dad, who gave it to me. Posit that had this theft not taken place, your granddad would have given the watch to your father, and from him it would have passed on to you. Should I be compelled, by law, to hand over that watch to you? It still has your grandfather’s initials on it. Stipulate that there is no dispute over these facts. The logic of those who oppose reparations infers that I should keep it. But to take this perspective is to promote theft. No, the correct position is that I owe you that watch.

There is a direct analogy, not to say an identity, between my contrived wristwatch example, and actual slavery. For what did the slave master “steal” from the slave? Why, in addition to stealing his freedom, and his right not to be molested, he also stole his labor. And where did that labor end up embedded? The plantation on which the slave was working. Had justice prevailed in 1865, slavery would have been declared a crime, ex post facto, and the punishment would have been that the ex-owner, at the very least, would have had to turn the plantation over to the now ex-slaves (this is where “forty acres and a mule” came from). Then, presumably, we stipulate, those ex-slaves would have handed over their shares of these plantations to their progeny, and they would now be in the hands of present-day black people.

That is the case for reparations in a nutshell. But it is a limited one. I am not a criminal for being in possession of this wristwatch. Rather, I am an innocent holder of stolen property (assume I never even noticed those initials). Unless you can prove that the watch now in my possession is, in justice, yours, I may properly keep it. The transfer would be limited to individuals who can prove that something was stolen from their forebears through slavery. The same considerations apply to the transfer of wealth from some, mainly whites, to some blacks. But this is not a matter of racism. There were also black slave owners, and their property would also be vulnerable to such transfers.

Should We Be Pro-Reparations Then?

Ta Nehisi Coates, Henry Louis Gates, and Randall Robinson are three of the most high-profile supporters of reparations for slavery. However, they, too, go off the rails, just as do those on the opposite side of the political spectrum who object to reparations. For in their view, all whites owe a debt for this disgraceful episode to all blacks.

But that is not just either. First of all, the initial holders of slaves in Africa were mainly black. Secondly, there were even black slave owners in this country. Third, the predecessors of many African-Americans in this country arrived here after 1865, when this “curious institution” was thankfully ended. Fourth, the grandparents of many whites now living in this country also landed here after the demise of slavery. It is thus difficult to see the justice of compelling reparations from all whites to all blacks, given these facts.

The Right Way to View Reparations

Only the moderate position between these two extremes is correct. Possession is properly nine-tenths of the law. The burden of proof therefore rests with black grandchildren of slaves. If they can prove that their ancestors were enslaved on a particular plantation, then the present owners of that terrain are innocent holders of stolen property, and must be compelled to give restitution to the rightful owners. These are the great-grandchildren of the slaves who should have been given that acreage when they were freed. However, suppose there were ten slaves on a given farm, and the grandchildren of only one of them can prove this connection. Is he entitled to the entire property? No, only to a portion of it, the part his forebear should have received.

Suppose this plantation was sold several times since 1865. The present owners just arrived in this country. They have purchased that land in good faith, innocently. Who has a better claim to this land? They, or the black grandchild? The latter does. The law properly so stipulates this regarding all stolen property. The only remedy for the present owner is to go after the party who sold him this acreage.


  • Walter Edward Block is an American economist and anarcho-capitalist theorist who holds the Harold E. Wirth Eminent Scholar Endowed Chair in Economics at the J. A. Butt School of Business at Loyola University New Orleans. He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.