Reparations and the Intertemporal Justice Warriors

Injustice. Few things cause stronger feelings. Moral beliefs are some of our deepest held beliefs, and perceptions of injustice can spark protests, political movements, or can even become a preface to war. When people believe morality is on their side, they can become emboldened to make serious changes in the world.

Everybody has some perception of injustice in society. For some people, blatant racism or sexism fires them up. For me, police brutality probably fills me with indignation faster than anything else. When witnessing some meat-head bullying an innocent civilian, my blood pressure goes through the roof; I immediately feel the tension rising in my chest.

However, strong feelings of indignation can be dangerous when misapplied. My desire to wallop a power-tripping bully should be based on the accuracy of my perceptions. If my perceptions are inaccurate, my desire to intervene and “do something about it” might end up causing more harm than good. Say, for example, you are walking in a mall and see some guy rip a purse out of a woman’s hands. You might chase after him, thinking he’s a crook. Imagine you catch up to him, manage to yank the purse back out of his hands, and return it to the woman. You might feel pretty good about yourself; your sense of justice has been satisfied. But what if you’ve made an error – what if the woman stole the purse in the first place, and the man was simply taking it back for his wife? What if she shoplifted the purse, and the man was returning it to the store? Your attempt at correcting an injustice would itself become an injustice – embarrassing at least, if not downright harmful.

Alas, this counter-productive behavior happens all the time. People act out of moral indignation before thinking carefully about their perceptions. Especially dangerous is trying to correct “injustices” with the tools of government. No matter how well-intentioned people are, exercising political power is a dangerous proposition, and it seems to always cause more harm than good.

Consider an example which periodically comes up in the United States: reparations for slavery. On the surface, proponents of reparations make a good point, and they point out a clear injustice: before the Civil War, millions of Africans were enslaved by white plantation owners in the Southern United States. These slave-owners stole all 100% of the slaves’ property and labor (and by implication, their lives) for years. Not only did the slaves themselves suffer, but their descendants too – slaves were unable to accumulate as much wealth to pass on to their children, which gave their offspring an unfair disadvantage in society. Similarly, the slave-owners were able to pass on their ill-gotten wealth to their children, giving descendants of slave-owners an unfair advantage in society.

The solution, they claim, is to try our best to right the wrong in the 21st century, by the US government paying “reparations” – essentially some determined amount of tax money – to black Americans. It’s not a perfect solution, but it at least would try to correct some of the socioeconomic injustices caused by slavery.

In my opinion, to put this proposal in the best light: it sounds nice. And that’s about it. The entire story gets caught up in imprecise abstractions, and their “fix” would end up causing more harm than good. The more concrete this proposal becomes, the more absurd it appears.

(Because people are quick to assume the worst of you, let me unfortunately state the obvious: the institution of slavery nothing short of an abomination. In no circumstance can anybody construe my beliefs as ambiguous; slavery is the most reprehensible of all human institutions, and those who practice it are self-righteous barbarians. In this regard, supporters of reparations and I are in agreement.)

When reparations go from abstract to concrete, things immediately start getting fuzzy. For example, exactly who is paying the taxes to whom? If the principle is to redistribute the slaver-owner’s wealth, surely we can’t favor reparations by general taxation; only a tiny fraction of Southerners owned any slaves! The vast majority of Southern whites were too poor to own any slaves. Should their wealth be confiscated too? Or more precisely, should the descendants of entirely innocent Southerners be forced to pay reparations for crimes their ancestors didn’t commit? The same goes for Northerners who never owned slaves.

What about my great-great-grandfather, who was an abolitionist preacher in Virginia? He didn’t benefit from slavery – he was kidnapped from behind a pulpit, tied to a horse, and dragged to his death. Does that make his family exempt? My relatives’ lives (and mine, as a result) were directly affected by his murder; am I entitled to some compensation from the descendants of my great-great-grandfather’s murderer?

And while we’re talking about who pays for reparations, what about all the immigrants in the United States who had nothing to do with slavery? My wife’s grandparents moved here from Norway in the 1900’s. Are they also forced to pay?

What about all of the particular stories of the families involved? Take a scenario where a slave-owner drank all of his ill-gotten profits away. Let’s say my great-great- grandfather had to start from scratch, because his slave-holding father was an irresponsible drunk. How could it be considered justice to hold his descendants liable? They didn’t benefit one penny from slavery. Part of the reward for hard work is being able to leave money to your children, and if the man received nothing from his corrupt father, it’s a great injustice to take away part of the gift to his offspring.

And what about the African slave-owners who arranged many of the slave trades to white Europeans? Are they liable too? Can a black American sue citizens of Ghana because of the actions of their great-great-great-great grandparents? In fact, many Europeans were enslaved by North Africans – do North Africans actually owe me reparation?

All of these questions need concrete answers, if we’re to carefully pursue justice.

Now let’s ask some questions about who actually receives the money. Is it all black people in the United States, or only those who can prove their ancestors were slaves? It would surely be an injustice to forcibly take money from innocent white Americans to give to black Americans unaffected by slavery. What about black immigrants from the Carribbean? Does everybody need a verified, documented family tree to present to a judge?

What’s a “just” amount for reparations, anyway – is it proportional to the time their ancestor spent as a slave, or perhaps to the amount of abuse they received? You can imagine “justice” having some relationship to the brutality suffered by slaves – the horribly treated, cruelly whipped slaves should be entitled to more than those slaves who were treated relatively kindly, right?

What if somebody was only enslaved a few months – does their family get less compensation? Does the modern black American have to prove the duration of his ancestors’ slavery, or does everybody simply get a certain cut of money regardless? If the latter, then reparations are an extraordinarily crude way to try to correct an injustice that happened two hundred years ago – essentially stealing from one group of innocent people, who had nothing to do with slavery, and giving that money to another group of people, far removed from slavery, or perhaps entirely. Concretely speaking, you might end up forcibly taking from Italians who immigrated in the 80’s to give to Jamaicans who moved here in the 90’s – not a shred of justice involved.

Another question: just how far back do these reparation claims go? After all, if we go far enough back, I bet everybody has ancestors who were slaves. Say I discover I am distantly related to Pharaoh – do I owe Jewish people a small fraction of money because of their bondage in Egypt thousands of years ago? Surely, I cannot possibly be held liable for the actions of Pharaoh. Perhaps my position in life is slightly improved because of exploitation perpetrated by my ancestors in ancient history. At some point, we must recognize the futility of trying to right a wrong in the past.

As you can see, while it’s easy to point out the injustice of slavery, it’s difficult to come up with a “solution.” To me, all of these uncertainties and difficulties make it impossible to justify forcing everybody to pay for reparations through taxation.

My own view takes this a step further. Not only is it virtually impossible to discern the specifics around who owned slaves, it’s actually irrelevant, in almost every case. I am not liable for the crimes of my parents, much less my great-great-great-grandparents, whose names I’ve never even heard. What’s the connection between my liability in 2015 and their crimes in 1840? My DNA? Give me a break – I am no more liable for the damage they caused than I am to the decisions of my ancestors in the 1100’s. Forcefully taking the fruits of my labor to satisfy some trans-generational-justice-campaign is simply theft-in-the-present to pay for theft-in-the-past.

I can only imagine one kind of scenario where it might make legal sense to justify intervention. Imagine that my great-grandfather was a proven slave-owner. He claimed complete ownership over his slaves, and as a result, he took one of their family heirlooms – a ring, let’s say. Now imagine that ring never changed ownership and stayed in a metal box for two hundred years. I can see the case for that ring belonging to the provable-descendants of the slave, instead of the descendants of the slave-owner. This would be a where a lawsuit might be legitimate – but in no way would it involve general taxation for everyone unrelated to the parties. It’s clear-cut in a way that avoids all of the impossible-to-fix problems caused by government reparations.

Because it seems impossible to correct these injustices without creating more injustice, I can only conclude: not all wrongs can be righted. It’s tragic, but it’s unavoidable, and unfortunately, it’s demonstrated all the time. When people are wrongfully imprisoned, they permanently lose parts of their lives. No amount of compensation can make up for that. When somebody is wrongfully killed or murdered, the surviving family might receive a check – that doesn’t fix the injustice.

Sometimes, nothing can be done. It’s that simple. In the case of slavery reparations, every person on earth who was alive at that time is dead. All of their children are dead. It’s wishful, abstract, and ultimately harmful thinking to believe two-hundred year old atrocities are going to be fixed by punishing their distant relatives in the present, who are only related by accident of birth. Granted, reparations would make a lot of people feel better about the past – it would placate their guilt and sympathy. I understand this desire, but it doesn’t justify committing any further injustices.

Rather than deal with grandiose abstractions and distant history, I think people should focus on the very real injustices that are taking place right now. Become indignant about the unequal application of drug laws, which disproportionately affects minorities. Or all the sickening cases of police brutality. Or the powerful, connected people who get preferential treatment in our court system. Or the slaughter of innocent civilians overseas; hundreds of thousands of children have died because of sociopathic politicians, and people should be outraged by their atrocities.

If justice-seekers are itching to file lawsuits, there are plenty of legitimate ones to file. But it’s unwise to let moral indignation to go unchecked – too often it becomes a greater cause for harm than good. The trans-generational justice warriors need to turn their attention to cases which can be concretely resolved and leave the distant past alone.