It is a universal law of human existence that life isn’t fair. We are born into a set of circumstances that may be better or worse than the next person’s. We make decisions from among the opportunities available to us. Those opportunities may be plentiful or they may be sparse; they may be more lucrative for some than others; they may be more obvious to some people than to other people. But while the opportunities and life circumstances of various individuals may differ, so too do those individuals themselves.
One man, born to poverty, may work to lift himself up. Another, born to wealth, may coast through life. Still another, born to middle-class comfort, may make foolish decisions and ruin himself… and so on.
A second universal law of human nature is that it is not possible to relive the past. What happened in the generations before us happened. It happened without our consent and without our involvement. While we are duty bound to learn from the mistakes of history, we are not obligated to atone for them — nor should we try. This is thanks to a third universal law of human nature: The farther away a human being is from an act, however immoral, the more unjust it is to expect that human being to pay for it. Stated another way: The longer in the past an alleged injustice occurs, the more injustice will be produced if we attempt to correct it retroactively.
Take, for example, the matter of Native American treaties and land ownership. Had breaches in Native American treaties been addressed at the time those treaties were broken, it would be possible to achieve something akin to justice. To attempt to “correct” them generations later, by taking land from people who have been paying for it, living on it, and developing it in the century since, creates more injustice than it solves. It punishes people who were in no way involved in the alleged crime… on the theory that they have “benefited” from that crime in the intervening decades.
The problem with retroactive justice is that it seeks to reward those who were not wronged at the expense of those who have committed no crime. Yes, the descendants of people living a generation ago are arguably born to different circumstances than they would be if past injustices had not occurred. But do we know for a fact that those circumstances are necessarily worse? To play that “what if” game is to a play a game that cannot, and will not, ever end.
We can always second guess the conditions and the crimes of generations past. We can always attempt to compensate the descendants of one group who suffered at he hands of another, punishing people living today for the crimes of their ancestors. But no rational person believes that to be punished for the crimes of his great, great grandfather is in any way justice. And as the intervening years legitimize once illegitimate claims, so too do they invalidate the grievances of persons long dead.
This is not to say that those grievances were invalid at the time. Far from it. History is replete with wrongs, with savagery, with injustice. But by definition, whenever we focus on the wrong done to a specific group, we must exclude the wrongs done by that group, the wrongs done by other groups, and the context in which all these actions took place.
Stated another way, if we owe any group — such as, in the former example, Native Americans — reparations for past broken treaties and contracts, we must also take into account the crimes they have done (and the victims against which those crimes were committed). To ignore those wrongs is to view history through a selective lens. People are good and bad. They are all capable of doing wrong. Many have. There can be no true justice, restorative or otherwise, if we ignore the full measure of a people’s morality.
It is for this reason that all calls for reparations for slavery are invalid . Take, for example, Black Entertainment Television founder Robert Johnson. At a time when members of the demographic to which Johnson belongs are tearing apart the country, burning cities, destroying lives, and beating innocent people in the street (although they are not alone in their participation in these crimes), Johnson had the temerity to call for $14 trillion in reparations for the past injustices of the American slave trade.
The argument centers on the “unequal playing field” faced by black Americans who are descendants of slaves. These people are owed compensation, we are told, for the disadvantages into which they were born — disadvantages that would not exist if slavery had not occurred.
Somehow, the irony of an affluent, successful businessman complaining that he and others like him are inherently disadvantaged by the color of their skin (and the circumstances into which he was born) is lost on Mr. Johnson. Lost, too, is the idea that we have absolutely no way of knowing how the life circumstances of any black person today would be different had slavery never been. Yes, slavery was wrong. Many prominent Americans, many of them white, fought to eliminate it because it was wrong. The nation fought an entire war over the issue, But if Johnson is the descendant of slaves, would he now be the wealthy founder of an iconic television brand if his ancestors had never come to the United States? We cannot know.
While it’s true that historic injustices have occurred on the basis of race, Johnson’s bold demand rests on the fundamentally unjust principle of retroactive compensation: He wants people who were never slave owners, whose parents and whose grandparents were never slave owners, to pay money to people who are not now slaves, whose parents and grandparents were never slaves. By what calculus do we presume to determine who deserves payment and who deserves to pay?
How shall we calculate the monies owed versus the debts incurred by Johnson’s demographic? Are we to presume, arbitrarily, that those living today are entirely innocent, owing society nothing in return for their own actions? Are we likewise to presume that anyone who is not black is always guilty, has only benefited from their current circumstances, and must be presumed to have directly benefited from the actions of those who came before?
Does the descendant of a Republican abolitionist who fought to end slavery owe as much in reparations as the descendant of a Democrat Klan member who fought to preserve it? What about those who descended from Africans who sold their brethren to slave traders? Where does the equation start and stop, and when do we stop counting?
Ultimately, we can come to only one conclusion: No one is owed reparations for slavery. Prince or pauper, working man or wealthy man, your circumstances are yours to leverage or rise above. It is not now, and never has been, fair. It never will be. Trying to make it so will only hurt people who have done no wrong — and that repairs nothing.