Before too long, Americans are going to be engaged in a heated debate over proposals to pay reparations for slavery. The idea has been floating around on the left for perhaps 30 years; but in the late 1990’s, it gradually moved from the realm of the inconceivable to that of the nearly inevitable, the kind of trajectory followed by once-unthinkable notions like gay marriage or gun confiscation. Every year for the last decade. Rep. John Conyers has sought to introduce a bill “to examine the institution of slavery,” subsequent “de jure and de facto discrimination against freed slaves and their descendants,” and their impact “on living African-Americans.” Congress would be called to consider “appropriate remedies.” Although the measure has never reached the floor of the House of Representatives, a changing mood was indicated by the positive response to Randall Robinson’s tract The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks (Dutton, 2000) and its call for “national restitution.” In the private sector as well, enterprising lawyers are now launching lawsuits against some of America’s largest corporations, particularly in the Northeast, on the grounds that their wealth was founded on slavery. If German firms such as IG-Farben and Volkswagen can compensate slave laborers from the 1940’s, why should U.S. companies such as Aetna not make similar payments to the descendants of black slaves from the 1840’s? The discussion of reparations is coming, and, although this may startle some readers, I’d like to suggest some reasons why we should support the passage of such measures.

Let me say right away that the reparations idea would be historically groundless and socially destructive. This is not an attempt to vindicate slavery; I’m not a revisionist. But granting the horrors of slavery, any reasonable observer would agree that any debt has already been paid, possibly twice. It was amply paid in the blood of 600,000 American dead in the Civil War, to say nothing of the millions of lives ruined by that conflict. Arguably, the debt was paid again in the 1960’s, when conflicts over segregation resulted in the destruction of states’ rights and local autonomy and drove the United States into a hitherto unimaginable degree of authoritarian centralism.

Equally obvious are the flagrant injustices involved in a reparations policy, which is precisely why I would like to see a bill proposed by Congress as soon as possible. The ideas underlying reparations are those that have motivated much of contemporary liberal thought, but commentators have rarely tried to pursue them to their logical conclusions, out of a decent respect to the opinions of mankind. A reparations debate would force us to explore the implications of these ideas, and the consequences would be explosive. Some advocates would recoil at these implications, others might not, but in either case, the debate would have enormous educational power.

The reparations theory is based on several core ideas of modern liberalism that have flourished during the Clinton years. One is the notion that political society is a matter of group adherence rather than individual rights. What you are, and the rights to which you are entitled, depend on group membership, and in most cases, membership is determined by descent and biology. Such an approach has nothing to do with the Constitution, but it is the basis of social policies such as affirmative action. A reparations debate would force advocates of social-group theories to come clean about their assumptions.

Just who would receive reparations? There are no surviving ex-slaves, and precious few children of slaves, while Robinson and Conyers make it clear that they are not terribly interested in legal distinctions between those who were slaves or freedmen in antebellum America. Reparations would be directed toward “African-Americans”; for the first time in American history, a racial category would be explicitly entitled to financial payments not available to other groups. This is explicitly racial legislation, with payment to blacks coming from “whites”: the descendants of Polish miners, Irish laborers, Jewish artisans, and Boston Brahmins, who are imagined to be a single homogeneous and privileged class of exploiters.

The next step would be to determine who is an African-American. I would very much hope that, on the first day a reparations policy is implemented, a couple of hundred million non-black Americans would present themselves at federal offices declaring their sincere belief that they are of slave ancestry and, therefore, entitled to a share of the loot. Meanwhile, lawyers would challenge the qualifications for payments to people commonl)- regarded as “black,” on the basis that their light skins indicate racial admixture. I can’t wait, by the way, to see the exact phrasing of a reparations bill, and its effort to make payments to blacks without explicit reference to skin color. Presumably, legislators will use some term such as “past or ancestral condition of involuntary servitude,” thereby opening the floodgates to anyone who can find a white ancestor who was an indentured servant during the 17th or 18th centuries.

To decide who deserves reparations, the government will have to accept the logical consequence of a generation of affirmative-action policy and acknowledge the official, statutory establishment of a federal system of racial classification, preferably under a board with Cabinet-rank status. Classification would be a simple matter, as genetic science is now sufficiently advanced to decide the predominant racial identity or geographical origin of any person. Perhaps this genetic identification could be coded into a modified Social Security number or federal identification card.

While there would be ongoing controversy over people of half- or quarter-descent, the government would otherwise have a rock-solid basis on which to form future policies, not just in allocating reparations, but in shaping education and welfare policies, designing electoral districts, and so on. For example, we would know exactly which people living on the Hawaiian islands are entitled to shares in the multibillion dollar reparations to be paid by the United States for overthrowing the native monarchy back in the 1890’s; or which self-described ‘Indians” could legitimately claim some of the wealth pouring in from the casino boom on reservations. American politics could move smoothly toward the kind of efficient classification proposed under the Nuremberg race laws and debated in such celebrated historical documents as the proceedings of the Wannsee conference. (But what about Jews of “three quarter descent”? How about “half-Jews,” mischlings?)

I wish I were joking about some of these trends, but I’m not. For the Indian example, see Jeff Benedict’s book Without Reservation (HarperCollins, 2000), a shocking study of how the federal government decided that an ill-assorted bunch of Connecticut families suddenly declaring themselves to be “Mashantucket Pequot Indians” was in fact a lost tribe, entitled to all the rights and privileges that come with tribal status—including permission to build and run the Foxwoods casino, currently one of the biggest money-makers in the hemisphere. Like African-American reparations, the Indian and Hawaiian cases represent the growing tendency to award rights on the basis of descent and genetics, an idea that is unconstitutional, immoral, and (does anyone remember the word?) un-American.

A reparations bill would open wide the doors to all manner of subsequent claims, to the extent that our emerging system of race law would be driven to the point of collapse, which is where it belongs. Without race law, we might have to learn to live in a colorblind society, where everyone, regardless of genetic makeup, is regarded as equally entitled to certain basic rights, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It sounds radical, but it just might work.

As an added bonus, a reparations debate might limit the endless spiral of guilt and apology. Paying Japanese-Americans for internment during World War II might, arguably, have been justified, but look where we have gone since then. Connoisseurs of political eccentricity found a rare treasure in a report issued this past July by a special international panel formed by the Organization of African Unity to examine the genocide in Rwanda, where members of the Hutu tribe massacred several hundred thousand rival Tutsis. The panel demanded payment of a “significant level of reparations” by the United States and France, on the grounds that they had failed to prevent the tragedy. In the words of the Canadian spokesman, only such gigabucks could possibly purge “an almost incomprehensible scar of shame on American foreign policy.” In other words, the United States should pay for doing nothing in a situation it had nothing to do with. Is the syntax of that last sentence any more bizarre than the idea it expresses?

Extending this principle, we could see a good deal of money changing hands internationally in the future: money paid by Canada, say, to apologize for not preventing the Chinese conquest of Tibet; by France, for its failure to save Atlanta from Sherman; and several trillion dollars worth of amnesty payments from the Arab world to the African regions from which it raided slaves for over half a millennium. (Which raises an interesting question; When I note black faces in the United States or the Caribbean, I can see the living descendants of the Atlantic slave trade, but where is the comparable black population in the Near East? Just how many of the Arabs’ millions of slaves survived to bear children?)

In short, a reparations debate would immensely benefit the United States by raising countless delicate questions which need to be explored. We know that people believe this outrageous nonsense: Let’s force them to say these things out loud. A reparations measure would almost certainly stir a general reaction that would have positive effects. And if it didn’t—if the political elite were allowed to get away with this atrocity, with no more than token protests—that would at least prove, once and for all, that American democracy is too far gone to be worth saving. It would be nice to know once and for all.