The parliament of Jamaica has agreed to seek reparations for slavery from the UK. I feel some disquiet about this argument. Part of that is personal, and it has nothing to do with slavery directly. In the great lottery of life, some people get to be oppressors and some get to be oppressed. My ancestors have largely fallen in the class of the oppressed, which was a great misjudgment on their part, because as we all know the other side generally comes out of it better. My father and my grandfather had to leave France. My great-grandfather had to leave Germany. My great-great grandfather had to leave Posnan. That’s four generations of injustice – and four potential claims for reparations. But they’re gone, and few are left. Should I be compensated for that? I’m not the one who suffered. Why should later generations of Europeans, who had no part in past evils, be forced to pay? The money has blood on it: would I want it? And does the claim make any sense anyway? If the Nazis hadn’t invaded the rest of Europe, my father and mother would never have met, and I wouldn’t exist. A demand for reparations is a demand to unmake history.
The argument for reparations depends on the view that that the United Kingdom, collectively, is morally bound to redress the wrongs it has committed. That may sound superficially appealing, but it has some perverse implications. My family didn’t benefit from slavery; they were nowhere near Britain at the time. It’s possible to argue, of course, that in coming to Britain, they joined the club, and might be said to have accepted responsibility for its actions. If the residents of Britain do have collective responsibility, however, the same argument must extend to the descendants of the slaves who came from Jamaica to Britain. Are we going to make them pay reparations, too? Then, perhaps, we should consider the way that the Jamaican economy was founded on slavery. Shouldn’t they be paying reparations to Africa? What about the African slavers, who captured and sold their compatriots into slavery? Shouldn’t their descendants be paying compensation to their descendants in the USA? Where does this end?
There is hardly anywhere in the world where the current distribution has not been influenced by injustice, oppression, exploitation or denial of rights: most of humanity have been treated badly for most of history. Attempting to redraw the lines of history really doesn’t make any moral sense. People can’t be held morally responsible for the actions of their distant ancestors either individually or collectively. Wherever people are disadvantaged, there is a case to redress the balance, but that case is based in disadvantage now, not the ill-treatment of the past. The world is as it is; what matters is what we do next.