On the day my Brazilian student gave me the kind of reverent statements about Nelson Mandela that I would expect of such a fierce socialist, he also gave me an interesting history lesson.  He reminded me of the coup that had led to 21 years of military rule in Brazil and said that, since the military had voluntarily relinquished power to the civilians, Brazil had not only had subsequent peaceful changes of administration, but one president had been forced to resign from office because of corruption.  My student was proud of the way his country had handled the resignation, because the rule of law had prevailed.  I thought he had good reason to be pleased, but, from my point of view, he dropped the ball when he added, with a disapproving tone, that the Brazilian military had been given an amnesty when they handed power over to civilians.  He couldn’t see that Brazil could move from military dictatorship to stable democracy because of the very amnesty he despises.  When the military voluntarily handed over power, something had to be given to them in return.  

Other countries have made a similar deal with their rulers in order to remove them from power, the people renouncing revenge in hopes of achieving a peaceful transition.  Their experience sheds light on our own lives.  

In the 1970’s, the Argentine military took power because of the growing threat of a leftist underground.  In the resulting “dirty war,” the military seized suspects—sometimes in broad daylight, on busy city streets—whom they interrogated, tortured, and often killed.  Many of the abducted never returned—the famous desaparecidos.  Their mothers gathered in public squares to protest the kidnappings, making a powerful contribution to the military’s loss of power.  Even Argentina’s generals couldn’t bring themselves to torture grieving, gray-haired women.  

The Argentine military eventually crushed the leftist underground, but, after suffering economic disaster and catastrophe in the Falklands war, they returned power to the civilians.  A crucial part of the deal was the creation of a special tribunal.  The military agreed to tell the country, through the tribunal, what they had done, and, in return, they received amnesty.  

Chile made a similar choice.  In 1973, elements of the Chilean military seized power, killing the legally elected Marxist President Allende Gossens in the process.  In 1990, they made a deal to restore democratic government: Pinochet, the military chief, became a senator for life, but he and other military leaders received immunity from prosecution.  

The Chilean physician who worked with my Brazilian friend and me speaks with great bitterness about the Chilean generals’ amnesty.  But in a country that had avoided military rule for more than a century before the anti-Allende coup, the restoration of democracy seemed worth the price to civilian leaders.  When Pinochet was taken into custody and threatened with prosecution during a trip to London, my Chilean friend rejoiced at the prospects.  He overlooked a likely consequence: Should the military ever seize power again, the betrayal of the deal with the generals—which is what Pinochet’s legal troubles represented—means the military will have a powerful incentive to retain power forever.  

In South Africa, the fall of apartheid led to the creation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  The deposed were exempted from punishment if they agreed to tell the commission their secrets.  Many of the most famous names of the old regime complied.  

The politics of our country are dominated by another great overthrow.  I have a picture of my brother as a little boy of four or five.  In it, he is standing in front of a small building with signs over two entrances: White Only and Black.  I remember seeing water fountains in the new shopping center near my house—this was in 1962 or 1963—labeled in the same way.  Many other Americans can remember such things.  We did not have Argentina’s secrecy and mystery: What was done was out in the open; everyone knew about it.

A recent debate in the Maryland legislature illustrates how we have responded to our great political change.  As do many other states, Maryland reserves a percentage of state construction contracts for firms owned by women and minorities.  Maryland’s governor wanted to increase these set-asides to 25 percent.  When people in the construction industry testified that qualified minorities could not be found, a black state senator delivered what he considered a devastating retort.  In World War II, he said, he had belonged to a black unit that was trained to disable land mines.  He proudly declared that he and his fellow soldiers had done a wonderful job.  On the surface, the senator’s anecdote is irrelevant, but its exegesis is simple: Whites injured me, my constituents, and our ancestors.  So you owe us.  

Are set-asides good government, in the sense of accomplishing a goal in the cheapest and most effective manner?  When a state needs to raise a building or construct a highway, it asks companies to bid for the work, and it usually gives the contracts to the company with the lowest bid.  This competition helps the state maximize the amount of work it can get for its money and creates an indirect pressure on contractors to maintain the quality of the work.  Set-asides undermine this competition, with inevitable results: With time, the state gets less for its money.  This will happen not because of any lack of virtue or skill on the part of blacks—the same problems existed when the de facto set-asides of segregation favored whites—but because of human nature.  

Set-asides illustrate how we have handled our great racial upheaval: We have opted for compensation over reconciliation.  Affirmative action is an obvious form of compensation, but there are others.  The downgrading of standards in our schools is driven, in large part, by an attempt to compensate; widening “welfare” beyond all reason is another.  The double standard about so-called hate speech is also a form of compensation: A black celebrity can vomit his or her hatred of whites with little censure or scandal, but whites must avoid such comments or pay a heavy price.  Increasingly, we hear of financial compensation for the descendants of slaves for things done a century and a half ago.  

This strategy benefits our politicians, but it has contributed enormously to the illegitimacy, crime, and drug abuse that are the true oppressors of black Americans.  It also benefits the civil-rights establishment, which has followed the compensation strategy to its logical end: the extortion of large corporations.  

Reconciliation is not served under such a system, and truth has suffered as well.  The canard that white America is filled with hatred of blacks has become the left’s bloody shirt.  The compensation system encourages the spreading of this myth.

Brazil, Argentina, Chile, and South Africa have varied in their subsequent happiness or misery.  However, many of their people understood that truth and reconciliation are often the best that can be gotten, as sometimes justice comes at an exorbitant price.  To balance accounts, to right all past wrongs, costs too much for mere human beings to bear.