The Outstater

April 29, 2019

Do you support reparations for slavery? “I absolutely believe that we need to have some kind of accounting for the persistent racial inequities today there by design because of part and present racism.” — Pete Buttigieg on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe”

REPARATIONS ARE beginning to make sense to me, but perhaps not in the same way and in the same degree that fellow Hoosier and presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg means it.

A friend, making a stab at statewide office a few years back, took the position that we could not be truly free as long as the state had the power to tax our property without limit. We were slaves to a tax code, he argued in vain. Reparation, according to this logic, was in order for the entire property-owning middle class.

A few years ago, the late Joe Sobran honed a distinction between chattel slavery and numerical slavery. We now are numerical slaves, Sobran wrote in his subscription newsletter, meaning we have the illusion of freedom but not the reality.

Most recently, Robert Higgs of the Independent Institute, capped the discussion with a historical point: It was common in the antebellum South to allow slaves to rent themselves from their masters. He cites the example of Frederick Douglass, given freedom to work in the Baltimore ship yards as long as he returned a fixed monthly amount to his owner.

Higgs finds the situation analogous to ours; that is, we are generally at liberty to arrange our own employment, spend our earnings as we please, acquire our own food and housing, all so long as we pay a portion to the various government masters who collect income, property and employment taxes.

Hyperbolic? Higgs defends himself by asking the fate of someone today who “jumps the plantation”:

“Consider what happens to someone who resolutely refuses to pay the government the rental payment for his body. He is subjected to a series of enforcement actions, culminating — if he resists at every step — in his being hauled off to jail and having his personal property seized to satisfy the governments’ demands. Thus, he loses both his property and his personal liberty.”

But back to the Buttigieg promise. My family documents an ancestral German grandfather and grandmother who were indentured servants, working for a decade or more as stoop labor on farms in Maryland and Virginia. Were they the subjects of racial discrimination? Candidates for special treatment?

Well, at the time, Ben Franklin wanted all Germans booted from the country for their skin color alone, considering them “smelly” and unworthy of either liberty or citizenship. He grouped Germans with others of “swarthy” complexion in Africa, Asia and South America. (Incidentally, the “colored” or mixed races in South Africa complain that discrimination for them has not abated since the defeat of Apartheid.)

Franklin’s position is unarguably illegal and immoral today. My family, then, conceding in certain instances the smelly part, is prepared to challenge past denigration and make its case for the special treatment of which Mr. Buttigieg speaks. Perhaps we deserve a sizable cash transfer as well, a tax credit or a rebate.

My ancestors, though, might expect us to have made more progress in the liberty department.

— Craig Ladwig


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