Tyler Cowen has a very good post on the issue of reparations for slavery. Here’s the meat of it:
The economic incidence of slavery is a tricky matter (most of what Squarely Rooted argues here is wrong). A lot of whites in the slave trade bought slaves at the going market price and earned the going market rate of return. Of course these same whites were reluctant to free the slaves they had bought and that meant terrible lives for the victims. But the gains of those whites are not mirror images of the losses of the slaves. Thus in some regards slavery was a massive collective action problem with a relatively small number of beneficiaries. Those benefiting would include individuals who first saw the gains from seizing slaves from Africa, and individuals who were good at spotting undervalued slaves and buying them up and exploiting them. That’s a fair number of people but it is far from comprising the overwhelming majority of society in 1840, much less 1940 or 2014, once we consider possible wealth transmission to their heirs.
I think that in order for any move on reparations to meet moral muster it must increase the total amount of justice in the world and that’s a very tricky calculation to make. We tax individuals and spend to aid other individuals rather than taxing groups to improve the lot of other groups.
Of course, if you don’t care about the actual history, costs, or benefits it does make the calculations a lot easier.