We Austrians emphasize the fact that only individuals act. This may sound like a dry academic pronouncement, but sometimes events bring its meaning dramatically to the fore. The Ferguson story is one such event.
While lunching in Palo Alto recently, I looked outside to see the street briefly blocked by demonstrators chanting and carrying signs with slogans like “black lives matter.” I wished I could confront one of them with a few facts, but then again, facts matter little to such folk, even in trendy Palo Alto.
The racially mixed grand jury took seventy hours of testimony. That’s a lot. They know what happened better than you or I or anyone besides the officer involved. The shooting was justifiable. Another fact that seems to have gotten buried: Michael Brown was a criminal, just having completed a robbery when he was shot. It’s too bad that he died, but hey, criminal activity is risky.
In light of these simple facts, how can people propound such irrationality as the demonstrators exhibited? The answer lies in the fallacy of collective guilt, a sub-species of collective action. Because white police officers sometimes shoot innocent black citizens, the fallacy implies that any white police officer who shoots a black civilian is necessarily guilty.
Now I want to extend this piece to the idea of reparations for slavery, a grotesque bit of nonsense that pops up from time to time, most recently, sad to say, in a piece by our own Brandon Christensen, albeit in passing.
Let me get this out of the way: slavery was a vicious, horrible institution. The idea of reparations or restitution has some rationality on the face of it. In general, people should be compensated, where possible, for violations of their rights, and what could be a more vicious form of rights violation than slavery?
From an individualist point of view, the idea of reparations is preposterous. I for one know pretty well who my ancestors were, and I’m quite sure none of them held slaves. But suppose I did have such an ancestor. The next question is how much benefit I might have received from his slaveholding. To answer that, we have to examine the counterfactual situation in which my ancestor did not hold slaves. How much bigger was the bequest that he passed on (if any) versus what it would have been without slaves? How much of that bequest filtered down to me, among possibly dozens of his descendents. Clearly this is a preposterous undertaking, especially at this late date.
Well then, why not force all white people to pay something to all black people? This of course is the idea of collective guilt, an idea nearly as repulsive as slavery itself. But let’s carry on with it anyway. Now we have to decide who is a white person and who is black. Does Barack Obama count, being half white and half black? Is one quarter black enough? One eighth?
Carrying on, where will the loot come from? White people will have to reduce their consumption and/or savings.This will exacerbate unemployment, at least temporarily, and reduce future productivity. What would black people do with the money? Some would judiciously save and invest it but most would not. I say this because studies have shown that the majority of the winners of large lottery prizes blow the money, unaccustomed as most of them are to saving and investing. Most blacks, I contend, would blow their reparations windfall on short-term consumption and possibly, like many lottery winners, end up in debt to boot.
Let’s keep things in perspective. Racism is a minor problem in our society compared to the crushing burden of the welfare-warfare state that we all bear.