No, Slavery Doesn’t Make Society Prosperous!

Arguments for reparations for slavery don’t understand personal responsibility, economics, or history.

The case for reparations for slavery holds people guilty for something they didn’t do, and a majority for the sins of a minority of slave traders and owners. It also doesn’t comport with the fact that there are many blacks whose ancestors were in America long before whites. Why should people whose forefathers immigrated in the 1890s be held responsible for the U.S. a generation earlier?

But another problem is found in Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “The Case for Reparations.” He believes that slavery in history accounts for a nation’s present prosperity. Coleman Hughes writes at Quillette, in “Black American Culture and the Racial Wealth Gap.

In his Atlantic essay, Coates argues that slavery is central to explaining American affluence. “Nearly one-fourth of all white Southerners owned slaves,” he writes, “and upon their backs the economic basis of America—and much of the Atlantic world—was erected.” The wealth gap, therefore, “puts a number on something we feel but cannot say—that American prosperity was ill-gotten.”

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But slavery is hardly the root cause of America’s prosperity. If it were, then we would expect American states that practiced slavery to be richer than those that did not. Yet we see precisely the opposite. The South, where slavery thrived, was “the poorest and most backward region of the country,” according to the economist Thomas Sowell. This remains true today. A recent analysis of census data found that Northeastern states, which forbade slavery, “are among the wealthiest,” whereas “states in the Southeast are among the poorest.” Nor is the disconnect between slavery and wealth unique to America. Similar disparities have emerged in Brazil, where the formerly abolitionist southern region has been, and continues to be, wealthier than the formerly slave-owning northern region.

Coates’s mistaken view about the origin of American prosperity is part of a larger fallacy about national wealth in general: the assumption that if a nation is wealthy, it must have stolen that wealth from somebody else. To the contrary, a nation’s wealth has more to do with the economic system it adopts and the set of skills its citizens possess. The example of Singapore is instructive: although it was raided by Portugal in the seventeenth century and colonized by Britain in the nineteenth, today Singapore is wealthier than both Portugal and Britain, in terms of median wealth per adult. By the same measure, not a single one of the nations that made Atlanta Black Star’s list of “Top 6 Countries That Grew Filthy Rich From Enslaving Black People” would make the list of top six wealthiest countries today. Indeed, they would rank 9th, 11th, 12th, 21st, 24th, and 30th. The wealth of modern nations was not plundered; it was, and continues to be, created.

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About the author

Joe Scudder

Joe Scudder

Joe Scudder is the "nom de plume" (or "nom de guerre") of a fifty-ish-year-old writer and stroke survivor. He lives in St Louis with his wife and still-at-home children. He has been a freelance writer and occasional political activist since the early nineties. He describes his politics as Tolkienesque.

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