The Samovar


Slave trade
November 27, 2006, 11:00 pm
Filed under: Politics

I wrote an article back in September 2001 (just a week or so before the WTC attacks) about the idea of reparations for the slave trade. In the light of Blair’s pseudo-apology I thought it might be worth posting it here.

Reparations

The issue of reparations for slavery and colonialism received some media attention around the 31st August during the World Conference Against Racism, although little was achieved at the conference itself.

Why would anyone advocate that we, the mostly Western countries involved in the slave trade and reparations, should pay reparations to countries that suffered from these events or to the descendants of slaves? To understand this, it is important to understand first what most of the advocates of reparations do not think.

Firstly, the idea of reparations is not punitive. Nobody alive today was involved in the slave trade or colonialism so punishment would not be fair. (Although slavery still exists today, which is an important but separate issue.) The idea of reparations is to provide a remedy for a contemporary ill with a historical cause, not to attempt to remedy a historical ill. The contemporary ill is the underdevelopment and poverty, the after effects of the slave trade and colonialism, of the people and nations that suffered them.

slave-note.jpgHowever, we shouldn’t get the idea that reparations is just aid under another name. Providing aid is a voluntary act of goodwill, paying reparations is a duty imposed on us by our own moral beliefs. It is a duty because we are still benefiting today, through our relative prosperity, from the enormous amount of wealth generated originally by the slave trade and colonialism.

The aim of reparations should be to use that amount of wealth we have thanks to our participation in the slave trade and colonialism to help restore the affected countries to the levels of prosperity they would have enjoyed had it never happened.

With this aim in mind we can begin to think about how best to go about achieving it. The most immediately obvious suggestion, a one-off cash payment, which many (e.g. Will Hutton in the Observer) assume is what the reparations advocates are suggesting, turns out to be one of the worst. The effects of a one-off cash payment, however large, would only have a temporary effect, whilst the offending countries would be legally and morally absolved. Indeed, this has been used by conservative commentators as an argument for the one-off payment form of reparations.

Many of the champions of reparations advocate a very different strategy to simple cash payment. For example, the Human Rights Watch report on reparations suggests setting up “… national and international panels to examine racist practices.” As well as determining the cost of reparations, “They should aim to reveal the extent to which a government’s past racist practices contribute to contemporary economic and social deprivation, educate the public about this continuing effect, acknowledge responsibility for it, and propose methods for rectifying these effects and making amends.” Payments would still be made, but they “… would presumably be used for investment in education, housing, health care, or job training, rather than consumer goods or other ephemeral benefits.”

A consequence of pursuing this aim for reparations is that black people descended from slaves, living in and personally benefiting from living in countries that gained from slavery, would be considered no differently than white people, in otherwise similar circumstances, descended from slave traders. In principle the issue is not race but illegitimate advantage. An interesting extension of this principle underlying reparations, that suggests itself when the issue is divorced from race, would be for women as a group to demand reparations from men as a group for centuries of repression.

There is even some hope of a legal case for reparations too. It is put forward by Lord Anthony Gifford QC on behalf of the Africa Reparations Movement (ARM) on their webpage.

His case starts by demonstrating that slavery and colonialism constitute a crime against humanity. He then demonstrates that those who have committed crimes against humanity have to pay reparations and gives some precedents, for example in 1952 Germany paid Israel $222m, in 1990 Austria paid $25m to Jewish people and, perhaps even more significantly, in 1988 the US government paid $1.2bn to Japanese Americans as restitution for discriminatory behaviour towards them during wartime. The last part of his legal case is to demonstrate that descendants of victims of a crime against humanity have a right to claim reparations. Some precedents are given here, too, for example: “More recently, since the unification of Germany, claims have been pressed successfully by the sons and daughters of property owners whose lands were seized after the German Democratic Republic was set up.”

Although they are the best hope for actually achieving reparations, we shouldn’t get carried away with the legal arguments, they are not really the point. What should motivate us is a consideration of the moral principles involved. Do we feel happy with ourselves knowing that a considerable amount of our wealth is due to our country’s participation in such horrendous acts?

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12 Comments

Hmm. I’m in two minds. Philosophically, the concept of redress for the pain inflicted on one’s ancestors doesn’t seem to make much sense. I’d prefer to look at a different way…good old-fashioned, socialist redistribution. It is unarguable that the poor in the US are disproportionately black. They live in a framework of institutionalised poverty constructed as a result of slavery. Similarly, the world’s poor are disproportionately black, to a large degree held back by the continued reverberations of colonialism. The answer in both cases – as to poverty in general, black or white – is redistribution from the net benefactors. All wealth depends on poverty.

As you say, reparations are not intended to be punitive – but it does have certain connotations of ‘the sins of the father shall be visted on the children’. Redistribution, on the other hand, is simply…fair. And sensible.

Notwithstanding, it goes without saying that we remembering the outrage of slavery should be at the core of our historical consciousness.

Comment by Edward the Bonobo

Your way of thinking about it seems very sensible to me, but in some ways these two ways are not so different. As you say, “Philosophically, the concept of redress for the pain inflicted on one’s ancestors doesn’t seem to make much sense.” But, I was arguing that it is not the fact of the pain of slavery (which was undoubtedly huge but cannot be redressed), but the consequent economic disadvantage, which we may be able to fix:

In principle the issue is not race but illegitimate advantage. An interesting extension of this principle underlying reparations, that suggests itself when the issue is divorced from race, would be for women as a group to demand reparations from men as a group for centuries of repression.

I think one could go further, and argue along similar lines to a general principle of redistribution.

So although these two ways of approaching the problem are the same in principle, there is a difference in practice. In practice, many people believe – perhaps not consciously – in something like Nozick’s entitlement theory of justice. I described this principle in an old essay on Nozick as follows:

His entitlement theory of justice says, roughly, that if the initial distribution of holdings is just and every transaction that subsequently occurs is just, then the distribution of holdings will be just at all later times. A just transaction, again roughly, is one which is mutually and voluntarily (i.e. without physical coercion) agreed upon.

The idea of general socialist redistribution is potentially inconsistent with this theory of justice (Nozick certainly thinks it is, but I disagree, see the essay I linked to for more on why), but the idea of redistribution to people who have been historically disadvantaged by an unjust transaction – slavery – is perfectly consistent with it.

Comment by Dan Goodman

Isn’t the big hurdle in the first part:

if the initial distribution of holdings…is just

Since we’re not starting from that prerequisite, the statement says nothing about a political philosophy. It’s abstract philosophising.

By the way…How come I can’t select and copy text from WordPress comments?

Comment by Edward the Bonobo

That’s one of many big hurdles with the theory. I think though that people would tend to agree with a less explicit statement of the theory. Something like “it’s fair that blah is so rich because he worked for it, it’s only fair that he is allowed to pass his money on to his children, etc.”. The consequence of this is that they believe inequality, even massive inequality, is fair if no actual skulduggery was involved. On the other hand, I don’t think they’d think it was fair if blah got ahead by doing something unjust and passing this money on to his children.

I don’t have any trouble with copying and pasting text in wordpress comments. Maybe it has a bit of javascript to block people from doing this if they’re not logged in? If so, there’s a solution which is to press “Ctrl+U” and copy and paste from the HTML source (assuming you’re using firefox).

Comment by Dan Goodman

Ah! Lateral thinking. Thankee.

However…even allowing that it might be judged ‘fair’ to a) accumulate through fair means and b) pass on one’s accumulation to one’s kin…will this not lead to a state of affairs whereby wealth generates its own inward flow? ie the rich will get richer. This isn’t a socialist argument. It’s straightforward Ricardian economics. It was Ricardo who discovered that wealth accummulates dispproportianely between landlord and tenant.

Comment by Edward the Bonobo

I didn’t know that about Ricardo. He’s one of those people I have had in mind to read for a while but never get round to. I was pleased when I read Adam Smith to find that he has a much friendlier outlook on life than the free marketeers who worship him. Is it the same with Ricardo? I know that Marx was appreciative if critical.

Nozick makes the distinction between judging a system based on its rules and its outcomes. I think he gets it wrong when he attacks the idea of judging a system based on its outcomes. His reason for doing so is that if you attempt to create certain outcomes, you have to be constantly interfering with the system in order to produce those outcomes, which is incompatible with freedom. Moreover, a strong enough state that can achieve this tinkering with outcomes would have a tendency towards becoming authoritarian or dictatorial. Indeed, this is a fair worry but he ignores the possibility that you might be able to create rules which create certain outcomes which needn’t be dictatorial.

In the language of physics and mathematics, the ideal from this point of view is to look for dynamical systems based on fair, non-dictatorial rules which have stable attractors which are fair outcomes. A priori there may not be such a thing, but I don’t think there is much evidence to suggest not (I strongly suspect that the arguments of Hayek and von Mises don’t really stand up in this respect, but I have only read short summaries of their work so I couldn’t say for sure), and there’s every reason to do our best to see if there is.

Anyhow, as regards slavery and reparations, as I said I agree that we should favour general redistribution but we should also support other ideas (reparations) which lead to better outcomes, recognising that other people have different ideas about what constitutes fairness and what is or isn’t right.

Comment by Dan Goodman

Hmm. That sounds utterly wrongheaded. Life isn’t mathematics. In science, you can judge a proposition on the grounds that it is right or wrong. But in life, there are no external standards by which to judge (see also my comments re. Ethics). The best we can go on is something like “As far as we can agree, this seems to make sense for most of us.”

This applies to both outcomes and rules. I believe that you Mathematicians have the concept of ‘Goodness’ – which seems to be relatred to elegance, simplicity and completeness. We simply can’t judge a system of rules by similar means – there’s no objective way of deciding on ‘fairness’. The fairest/best/most ethical rules are those which, as far as we can judge, deliver outcomes which we are by and large happy to live with.

So…back to reparations. Let’s say, for sake of argument, that it is ‘fair’ that African-Americans are compensated for slavery. But some wealthier African-Americans (admittedly proportionately few) simply don’t need forty acres and a mule. – not compared to (again, proportionally fewer) poorer white Americans. So which outcome is fairer? Blanket redistribution on grounds of need? Or selective donation on grounds of colour?

Comment by Edward the Bonobo

I’m not sure what we’re disagreeing about here. Exactly what is fundamentally wrong headed? I’m not arguing that there are objective standards of fairness or what have you. I do think that we can study social and economic dynamics mathematically and use this knowledge to design systems of economics and governments whose outcomes we consensually prefer.

Back to reparations – your criticism here doesn’t apply to what I was suggesting. Quoting the article above:

Many of the champions of reparations advocate a very different strategy to simple cash payment. For example, the Human Rights Watch report on reparations suggests setting up “… national and international panels to examine racist practices.” As well as determining the cost of reparations, “They should aim to reveal the extent to which a government’s past racist practices contribute to contemporary economic and social deprivation, educate the public about this continuing effect, acknowledge responsibility for it, and propose methods for rectifying these effects and making amends.” Payments would still be made, but they “… would presumably be used for investment in education, housing, health care, or job training, rather than consumer goods or other ephemeral benefits.”

A consequence of pursuing this aim for reparations is that black people descended from slaves, living in and personally benefiting from living in countries that gained from slavery, would be considered no differently than white people, in otherwise similar circumstances, descended from slave traders. In principle the issue is not race but illegitimate advantage. An interesting extension of this principle underlying reparations, that suggests itself when the issue is divorced from race, would be for women as a group to demand reparations from men as a group for centuries of repression.

Comment by Dan Goodman

My criticism was of Nozick. I think. I don’t think the concept of ‘fairness’ applies to rules, only to outcomes. A rule is fair to the extent to which it delvers a fair outcome, irrespective of our perception of the rule.

“The issue is not race, but illegitimate advantage”

Indeed. Granted there are fewer proportionally descendents of slaves than non-decendants who have even a legitimate advantage, but I guess what you’re arguing is that, say, Michael Jordan doesn’t actually need 40 acres and a mule.

But what I’m suggesting is that, at some point, the illegitimacy or legitimacy of advantage or disadvantage becomes irrelevant. Take the white descendant of non-slave owners. That person may be rich by an accident of birth. Should some of that person’s wealth not be redistributed simply on principle to other white (or black) people who are disadvantaged, also by accident of birth?

I’m sure we’re agreeing on the outcomes, but not on the mechanism…and more fundamentally, not on the reasoning behind it.

Opening it up a bit…Race is obviously a major factor in politics, especially (but not only) in the US. But has it maybe diverted the politically active away from the real issue – Class? Too few Americans call themselves Socialists! And if I were cynical, I’d say that Blair is happier to highlight race issues than class issues.

Comment by Edward the Bonobo

Ah OK. I also criticise Nozick on the grounds of the outcomes of his rules. I think maybe you go too far in saying that the concept of fairness doesn’t apply to rules. A rule can certainly be unfair – Apartheid for example. I think the point is rather that fair rules don’t guarantee fair outcomes, and fair outcomes are important.

Suppose that by pressing for reparations you could actually achieve them and at least partly right racial inequalities. That would surely be a good thing? It’s only a question of strategy whether or not you argue for this separately from general redistribution or together with it.

Having said that, I think your last point is crucial. Class is more important, and addressing issues of class would automatically address racial inequalities too. Perhaps it might also work the other way around though too? By engaging people with racial inequalities which to some might be more palpable and apparent than class inequalities, you open their eyes to other forms of inequality. It’s my opinion – something I hinted at in my article – that the argument for reparations naturally leads us to an argument for general redistribution. People become radicalised for all sorts of reasons, but many of these lead people to the same analysis of the problems in society.

p.s. you posted three comments, I assumed that the last one was the one you were happy with and deleted the other two, I hope that’s OK.

Comment by Dan Goodman

Tresja vu?

A rule can certainly be unfair – take Apartheid for example.

I’d still like to poke this. We judge Apartheid to be evil because of the evil outcomes it delivered (and was intended to deliver). However…what if, hypothetically, it really all about ‘Good neighbourliness’ (as PW Botha claimed) and it delivered a society were people were ‘separate but equal’? A rule is an abstract thing. What people live is the outcome of rules + contexts. But it’s an arcane point.

Howard Zinn has much to say on the American origins of racism in his ‘Peoples History of the United States’ (a marvellous book!). In colonial America, the ruling class faced dangers from native Americans, African slaves, British indentured labour and a growing proletariat. These elements came together from time to time in various revolts. Racism was essentially manufactured as a means to divide and rule. (In what other continents have we seen that policy?). It also, of course, legitimised the inhumanities of the Transatlantic trade.

Comment by Edward the Bonobo

Hmm. Missed a closing tag there.

Comment by Edward the Bonobo




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