Well said. It reminds me of a book I just read on the Versailles Treaty. Everyone was digging up ancient historical claims to justify getting land. Just created lots of tension that didn't end well. And on the most obvious level if part of your family fought for the Union should they be exempt? Injustice goes back to Cain killing Abel. At times you have to draw a line, write off the loss and move on for the sake of peace. Sadly the pandemic will make this worse. Poorly educated folks in the ghetto lost the most ground in school and will fall behind in the workforce. Fertile ground for grievance politics and money promises that can never be. Explosive.

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"Meanwhile, many other people who don’t acknowledge a moral obligation to pay reparations but are taxed to do so will feel aggrieved.'

Understatement. If you want to rip this country apart, try using the taxing power of the state for reparations.

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(Coming in late - and by the way, an interview at Art of Manliness sent me here)

With regards to Sherman's Special Field Orders No. 15, it is my interpretation that the land grants were basically letting the freedmen be "squatters" on the land, but not actually giving them title to it. One of the sections specifically mentions "the approval of the President" before the title can be given.

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May 8, 2023·edited May 8, 2023

It seems to me that the debate over reparations actually consists of many parts, the boundaries of which proponents *and* opponents blur, sometimes deliberately. At the highest level, there is a big difference between whether a moral case can be made for reparations for a particular harm, and whether there is a morally permissible or politically practical means for paying reparations. But I would actually break the problem up by asking the following questions:

1. Is there a moral harm?

2. Who committed the moral harm?

3. Who suffered the harm?

4. Is there a class of people living today who deserve recognition of the harm and can be defined?

5. If there is such a class and it can be defined, can and ought money damages constitute part of that recognition?

6. If yes, what entity should pay those damages, how should those damages be calculated, and how should they be paid?

From my point of view, the federal government committed a huge moral harm by, inter alia, recognizing and permitting slavery, using slaves to build federal buildings and other government assets in Washington and elsewhere, enacting and enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act, resolving Reconstruction in such a manner that allowed the defeated States to impose unconstitutional restrictions on voting rights for Blacks, enforcing segregation within the federal government in obvious contravention of the Constitution, and enacting laws and regulations that were on their face de jure discriminatory. To me, then, the federal government clearly committed almost incalculable violations of the rights of Blacks in this country. Individuals and other governmental entities also committed such harms, but the guilt of the federal government of the United States - taken as a whole, including all three branches - was larger than any other (because it was enabling).

The victims of the harm of slavery and Jim Crow were primarily the ancestors of *some if not most* African Americans living today, and a declining number of aged African Americans were *direct* victims of Jim Crow and other de jure discrimination, both of which were ultimately the fault of the federal government (among other entities).

Ought we *recognize* that all of this happened to the ancestors of millions of - but not all - Black Americans? Does our federal government owe the long dead and the still living elderly victims an apology? I would say so.

Should the federal government, at least, pay damages in addition to an apology? I would say that the moral case for such damages is a strong one. The difficulty, as you point out, is in defining the class of recipients, and the scope and nature of the damages. I have some ideas about how that might be done with rough fairness, but I have no illusions about the political possibility of doing it.

So I believe this is a genuine moral problem that probably cannot be solved at a tolerable social cost to our civil society, even if we could work out the economics.

I will say this: I do believe that the duration, magnitude, and inter-generational consequences of both 200+ years of slavery and 100 or so years of de jure discrimination *by our federal and state governments* against Blacks so far exceed the damage done to other ethnic and racial minorities (with a footnoted exception for indigenous peoples, which in my mind represent a different problem with a different moral calculus), that the lack of remedies for these other groups should not be held up as a reason to do nothing for Blacks. In other words, the failure to remedy all injustice is not an argument against remediating any injustice.

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May 8, 2023·edited May 8, 2023Author

Thank you for this very thoughtful and detailed reply. I especially appreciate your framework for analysis.

I differ with your conclusion, though. I think you give insufficient weight to politics at the beginning of our national history and in the present. In 1776 Americans found themselves saddled with an institution inherited from Britain which served as the basis for the economies of several states. The concept of human rights was being born--in no small part by the struggle of the Americans against Britain--and there was no consensus around the idea that slavery was wrong. Inequality was part of human existence as the Americans knew it, although Jefferson was doing his rhetorical best to change that perception. Educated, propertied males might speak of equality among themselves, but they didn't include indentured servants, indigenous peoples, women and slaves in their conversation. To fault Jefferson et al for not abolishing slavery is comparable to faulting Newton for not discovering relativity. Progress comes in stages. It is worth noting that the United States was where abolition began. Pennsylvania and other Northern states were the first political realms to outlaw slavery. (The 1772 Somerset case in Britain didn't apply to the empire--which was why there were still slaves in America in 1776.) Slavery lingered in the South because attitudes hadn't changed there, and there was no constitutional mechanism for imposing abolition upon them, even if a national majority had wanted to, which it didn't.

At present, the question comes down to the matter of whether reparations would do more harm than good to American democracy. Racial distinctions have been the bane of our politics since the beginning. The great struggle of the period from the 1860s to the 1960s was to remove those distinctions from American law. Reparations would write them into law again and set the country back a century.

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Great editorial! I imagine that the PC crowd will claim that Dr. Brands is a racist. On the other hand, I doubt the WOKE types read his column anyway.

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Dr Brands, do you think that if we successfully install reparations into state governments it has the potential to be a litmus test for World reparations between countries and cultures?

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Somebody is bound to give it a try.

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That worked out really well after WWI.

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