Reparations for historical wrongs can’t be fair

I attended an online session recently in which some academics were making a principled argument for reparations for slavery and colonialism.  The argument is simple enough.  Both slavery and colonialism did terrible things.  People are still suffering as a result.  The countries that perpetrated those wrongs should pay reparations to redress the balance.

I understand why people want to make this argument.  There have been historical wrongs, and there is continuing disavantage as a result.  I also think that they are profoundly muddled.  There is no possible way for reparations to be done fairly.

My objections rest on four points of concern.  The first question to consider is remoteness.  Do people merit compensation for something that has been done, not to them, but to their ancestors?  To what extent are people responsible for the sins of their parents? Their grandparents? The seventh generation?  This isn’t some obscure philosophical point.  Jamaica has asked Britain to compensate them for slavery – which was substantially abolished in the colony in 1834 (some time after the 1807s abolition in Britain).  Many of the wrongs that have been done to indigenous peoples date from the long nineteenth century.  Some of them happened centuries ago.  African slavers sold their compatriots into slavery in the New World.  Should their descendants be paying compensation to their descendants in the USA?  Where does this end? Where do we draw the line?

Second: who is liable?  If the issue is viewed collectively, the implication is that anyone who has become part of the collective becomes liable for that collective’s past actions.  One of the characteristic features of colonial powers is that often they brought in people from the lands they had colonised.  That’s how populations  of people of South Asian or Afro-Caribbean descent developed in the UK, and Muslims in France or Russia.  If “Britain” is treated collectively for the purposes of reparations, those reparations will come, not from the concealed coffers of perpetrators, but from a population that according to the 2021 census includes fully a quarter of people who do not identify as ‘white’ and English, Scottish, Welsh,  Northern Irish or “British”. About one in six people were not born in the UK.  Should the Windrush generation, and those with a Caribbean heritage,  pay reparations to Jamaica?  Because that’s an inherent part of what Jamaica’s demands for reparations would entail.

The third problem concerns injustice.  Human history everywhere has been marred by oppression.   The East India Company, the Highland clearances, the Irish famine, the treatment of the poor, the dispossession of indigenous peoples, the pogroms, the wars, the genocides – there’s no end to it, and nowhere to stop. The ancestors of the vast majority of people, in almost any country you can name, have been the victims of oppression. It follows from that that any historic reparations will have to be made by or on behalf of the of people who have been the victims of oppression as well as people inheriting from the oppressors – and the inheritors of victims will be in the majority.  This isn’t a bit of “what aboutery”; if it was just that, a partial redress it could still help to correct some illegitimate disadvantage. The problem is much more fundamental.  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.  No measures can be taken that are not also in effect measures taken against people whose ancestors have also been the victims of injustice.

Fourth, past wrongs are a poor guide to present injustices. Consider some of the large-scale forced migrations that have taken place in the course of the twentieth century: the partition of India, which displaced twenty million people and almost certainly led to a million deaths; the displacement and exchange of up to 20 million people in Germany, Poland and Ukraine in the period immediately following the Second World War; the mass expulsion and displacement of 1.6 million Greeks and Turks.  We tend to ignore much of this, although it is all relatively recent, either because it is considered less important than other historical wrongs (which should be a source of moral outrage), or  because so much has been done to improve the lives of their children and grandchildren.  If some groups are suffering injustice now, that is surely the responsibility of those who are responsible for addressing that injustice now – and that is a matter for contemporary governments, the people who have the power to redress that injustice now.  The alternative, of course, is to address one form of disadadvantage in the hope that it will reduce other related problems.  If so, what distinction should we draw between people who are the inheritors of historic injustice, people who are migrants from poor countries, and people who are poor now because of indequate incomes?  And what on earth makes us think that we have the knowledge, moral authority, competence or technical capacity to make such distinctions?

There are, then, four fundamental objections to the argument for reparations.

  • People can’t be held morally responsible for the actions of their distant ancestors, either individually or collectively.
  • We cannot fairly distinguish people who are liable from those who are not liable.
  • We cannot fairly take account of historical injustice, as opposed to injustice now.
  • We cannot unmake the history of the world.

There is every reason to argue that people who are treated badly should be treated better.   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.



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