Worth Reading, Mostly Economics, for April 23, 2010
DeLong Smackdown Watch: Jim Henley's Thoughts on Bryan Caplan

Henry Louis Gates Gives Me a Quitclaim Deed to Hold onto the Fruits of My Slaveowning and Slave-Trading Ancestors' Crimes

Mightly generous of him, I must say...

But not well-argued at all.


How to End the Slavery Blame-Game - NYTimes.com: THANKS to an unlikely confluence of history and genetics — the fact that he is African-American and president — Barack Obama has a unique opportunity to reshape the debate over one of the most contentious issues of America’s racial legacy: reparations, the idea that the descendants of American slaves should receive compensation for their ancestors’ unpaid labor and bondage.... [T]here is very little discussion of the role Africans themselves played. And that role, it turns out, was a considerable one, especially for the slave-trading kingdoms of western and central Africa.... For centuries, Europeans in Africa kept close to their military and trading posts on the coast.... How did slaves make it to these coastal forts?... 90 percent of those shipped to the New World were enslaved by Africans and then sold to European traders... without complex business partnerships between African elites and European traders and commercial agents, the slave trade to the New World would have been impossible, at least on the scale it occurred. Advocates of reparations for the descendants of those slaves generally ignore this untidy problem of the significant role that Africans played in the trade....

For many African-Americans, these facts can be difficult to accept. Excuses run the gamut, from “Africans didn’t know how harsh slavery in America was” and “Slavery in Africa was, by comparison, humane,” or, in a bizarre version of “The devil made me do it,” “Africans were driven to this only by the unprecedented profits offered by greedy European countries.” But the sad truth is that the conquest and capture of Africans and their sale to Europeans was one of the main sources of foreign exchange for several African kingdoms for a very long time. Slaves were the main export of the kingdom of Kongo; the Asante Empire in Ghana exported slaves and used the profits to import gold. Queen Njinga, the brilliant 17th-century monarch of the Mbundu, waged wars of resistance against the Portuguese but also conquered polities as far as 500 miles inland and sold her captives to the Portuguese.... Did these Africans know how harsh slavery was in the New World? Actually, many elite Africans visited Europe in that era, and they did so on slave ships following the prevailing winds through the New World....

So how could President Obama untangle the knot? In David Remnick’s new book “The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama,” one of the president’s former students at the University of Chicago comments on Mr. Obama’s mixed feelings about the reparations movement: “He told us what he thought about reparations. He agreed entirely with the theory of reparations. But in practice he didn’t think it was really workable.”... Professor Obama may have been more right than he knew.... [W]e finally have a leader who is uniquely positioned to bridge the great reparations divide. He is uniquely placed to publicly attribute responsibility and culpability where they truly belong, to white people and black people, on both sides of the Atlantic, complicit alike in one of the greatest evils in the history of civilization...

Unfortunately for Gates:

  1. The first generations of African kings who began selling slaves to European traders for guns indeed did not know what slavery was like on the other side of the Middle Passage--they thought it was like slavery in Africa, where if you become a slave you then become part of a single household in which you have roughly the status of the very poor third cousin. But slavery in the Caribbean was a much harsher and more vicious institution--as capitalist slavery driven by production of staple cash crops so often is.

  2. Once the slave trade was started and once the kings of Africa knew what they were doing, no individual African kingdom along the coast can back off and stop. If it does, the guns and ammunition stop coming--and it gets conquered in short order by its coastal neighbors who are still engaged in the slave trade.

  3. Only when European consumer demand for Caribbean staple crops appears--only when the profits from slave agriculture and thus slave-raiding become really large--is it worth African kings' while to start substantial slave-raiding in the interior (and is it worth the Europeans' while to start shipping people across the Middle Passage).

That Henry Louis Gates makes fun of these arguments doesn't make them untrue.

And so I reject the quitclaim deed he offers: just because there were people with skin of another color on another continent who aided and conspired with my ancestors in their crimes does not mean that I am quits of all obligations as I sit here still enjoying the fruits of their crimes.

This is the reason that when--back in 2003--Andrew Sullivan called me a:

classic example of the arrogant liberal. He supports affirmative action and believes that individuals in 2003 bear a direct responsibility for those people who enacted slavery and made life a living hell for many black Americans in decades and centuries past...

I rejected Sullivan's critique. He was simply wrong. I was not and am not an arrogant liberal on these issues. Instead, the arguments that convince me (and that lead me to reject the quitclaim that Henry Louis Gates offers) are not liberal but conservative ones--Burkean ones, to be exact:

A liberal sees society as a result of a social contract implicitly made between all of us alive today: we agree to live by rules and laws that we then have a chance to rethink, remake, and reform. It's important that this social contract be fair to us. From this perspective, the questions "Why should recent Korean immigrants bear any responsibility for repairing the damage left by the marks of slavery and Jim Crow?" and "Why should African-Americans find their own capabilities and potential accomplishments still limited by the marks of slavery and Jim Crow?" are both very good ones. (Somehow Andrew Sullivan only asks the first, and never thinks to ask the second. But thinking about why would take us far afield.)

I begin from a different point, from the observations that we Americans alive today are all the recipients of an extraordinary and unmerited gift, an inheritance of institutions, principles, and organizations that is without peer anywhere on the world today and that is of inestimable value. We aren't independent liberal individuals making a social contract in the rational light of Enlightenment Reason. Instead, we are heirs who have received an enormous inheritance from our predecessors. As Burke wrote, we:

claim and assert our liberties as an entailed inheritance derived to us from our forefathers, and to be transmitted to our posterity--as an estate specially belonging to the people.

It's not a contract, or if it is a contract it is not one just between those alive today. Again, as Burke puts it, if you are to think of a social contract you have to recognize that it is not:

a partnership agreement in a trade of pepper and coffee, calico, or tobacco, or some other such low concern, to be taken up for a little temporary interest, and to be dissolved by the fancy of the parties.... It is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.

But estates that are inherited come not only with assets, they also come encumbered with debts. If we are to be Americans--if we are to take up the wonderul unmerited gift, accept the marvelous entailed inheritance that is offered to us--we must take up not just the benefits and advantages, but also the debts that America owes from its past actions as well. To do otherwise--to ignore the debts while grabbing the goodies with both hands--is to show that we are not the true heirs of Benjamin Franklin and company. And chief among the debts that America owes from its past actions is the obligation to erase the marks left by slavery and Jim Crow.

Now Andrew Sullivan wants Americans to welsh on the debts and responsibilities that are attached to our marvelous, unmerited inheritance of institutions, principles, and organizations. He wants us to grab the good parts of the inheritance with both hands, and to say that the bad parts are none of our concern--that the slaveholders are dead, the lynchers are dead, and those who fought hard to protect lynchers from the law are dead (although not all of them, and Strom Thurmond only very recently).

Edmund Burke would disagree. He would say, "Are you crazy? There's a history here!" He would reach back to Montesquieu, and say that if the ruling principle of despotism is fear (it collapses if the subjects no longer fear the despot), and if the ruling principle of monarchy is honor (it collapse if the nobles no longer seek to outdo each other in deeds to win honor, nobility, and the favor of the king), so the ruling principle of a republic must be virtue. What is virtue? Well, linguistically, virtue comes from the Latin "virtus": "vir" = man, "tus" = -liness: "virtue" = "manliness" [in a proper modern and gender-indeterminate way, of course]*. Practically, a republic requires virtuous citizens: citizens who will take up their responsibilities and shoulder their share of the obligations neecessary for the common good. People who won't shirk their responsibilities. "If you wish to be part of this great more than two-century partnership that is America," Burke would say if I had him here right now, "you need to recognize that your inheritance is an entailed inheritance. First, it comes with an obligation not to waste it--an obligation to in your turn pass down to those not yet born a better nation than the one you live in. Second, it comes with debts attached: past deeds of America that were cruel and criminal, the memory of which is still shameful. Just because the particular members of the great partnership who incurred the debts (the three-fifths clause, the legality of the slave trade, the Missouri Compromise, the Fugitive Slave Act, et cetera) are dead doesn't mean that that the debts aren't still owed by the great partnership."

On many issues I am an arrogant liberal. But not this one. On this issue, I'm an arrogant conservative.