Coates reparations response: Free-market economist says discrimination made whites worse off too.

Are Reparations Unjustified Because Slavery and Jim Crow Made Everyone Worse Off?

Are Reparations Unjustified Because Slavery and Jim Crow Made Everyone Worse Off?

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May 27 2014 1:03 PM

Are Reparations Unjustified Because Slavery and Jim Crow Made Everyone Worse Off?


Susan Biddle/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Popular free-marketeer economist Tyler Cowen responded this weekend to the epic argument for reparations that Ta-Nehisi Coates made last week in The Atlantic, writing that while there is a "moral case" for compensating black citizens, "most living white Americans would be wealthier had this nation not enslaved African-Americans and thus most whites have lost from slavery too, albeit much much less than blacks have lost." His argument seems to be that almost everyone has been made worse off by living in a society in which blacks were not allowed to start their own innovative businesses, spend their own money freely, etc., and that it doesn't make sense to take reparation payments away from economic losers.

We also can look at how many white Americans have had ancestors who, at least for a while, had zero or near-zero net wealth. The returns from slavery may have been compounding for some heirs of Mississippi plantation owners, but not for most of us. My father, when he was thirty, had just gone bankrupt from an unsuccessful attempt to manage a New Jersey pet store. In what sense was he, or later I, reaping compound returns from a legacy of slavery? We go back to the point that overall he probably would have had a better chance in the wealthier and fairer non-discriminating society, even if you can pinpoint some mechanisms through which he might have benefited, such as facing less competition from potential African-American pet store entrepreneurs.

Cowen's argument makes some logical sense if you believe in the creative economic power of capitalism, but also seems to miss the point: Coates wasn't writing about what black Americans and white Americans deserve in a theoretical universe, he was writing about what they deserve relative to each other in this universe. And Coates would likely point out that despite having no personal net worth after he lost his New Jersey pet store (!), Cowen's father was still in position to benefit from loans, government entitlements, and other benefits derived partly from the practice of not letting black workers keep what they earned.