26 July 2006

On Reparations

The Objectivist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer

The movement for reparations for slavery has failed so far. It has led to an unsuccessful lawsuit against such corporations as JP Morgan, RJ Reynolds Tobacco, Union Pacific, and Aetna Insurance. The initial suit, filed in 2002, was for $1.4 trillion. Since 1989, Representative John Conyers (D-MI) has tried unsuccessfully to pass a bill that establishes a commission to study reparation proposals. More ominously, however, some cities (for example, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Detroit) require firms contracting with the city to disclose whether they or their predecessor profited from slavery. It doesn’t take too much imagination to see this as a first step toward reparations.

Reparations are owed to persons who were enslaved. Unfortunately they are dead. However, slavery didn’t harm the slaves’ descendants. A practice harms an individual if it makes him worse off than he otherwise would be. For example, the progressive-tax system harms a high-income taxpayer since he would pay less were it not in place. Thus, we can judge that a practice harmed a person only if we can compare how well he does with and without the practice. However, this can’t be done in the context of slavery since the descendants wouldn’t have existed but for slavery. This is because a person’s parents are an essential feature of him and slavery affected who parented with whom. That is, had slavery not occurred, the reproductive patterns would have been very different and current descendants would never have been born. Since descendants wouldn’t have been better off had they never been born, slavery didn’t harm them.

In contrast, some other cases of justified reparations are a good idea since they are given to actual victims. Consider, for example, the $20,000 paid to each Japanese-American interned by the U.S. and the $5.2 billion fund to compensate persons who were forced to work in Germany during WWII. As a side note, Michael Levin points out that were the approximately 40 million American blacks to be given the same $20,000, the cost would be $800 billion plus administrative costs, roughly the amount that the U.S. government spent in 2005 on social security and medicare.

Some proponents of reparations argue that it is owed for things other than slavery, such as discrimination or Jim Crow laws. The problem with this claim is that the amount of compensation is mere guesswork. The white-black differences don’t provide a useful guideline since there are a number of other factors that explain at least some of the differences. For example, blacks engage in a number of behaviors that put them behind the eight ball such as having children out of wedlock (over two-thirds of black children born in 2003 were born out of wedlock, 76% in Louisiana), criminality (blacks were more than half of the murderers and robbers in 2002), and poor performance in school (the black dropout rate is 11% versus 7% for whites and 4% for Asians). These behaviors are the sort of things that persons are responsible for doing and that can’t be placed on the doorstep of slave-owners and Jim Crow laws. In addition, as previously noted in this column, some of the differences might be due to genetics. If this is correct, then the black-white difference will not be a useful measure of the effects of past injustice.

Other proponents argue that reparations are owed because U.S. citizens received vast benefits from slavery. This is a mistake since an individual doesn’t owe reparations for merely having benefited from injustice unless he was in some way responsible for it. For example, if a tennis player (e.g., Steffi Graf) wins more tournaments and earns more money as a result of a crazed fan stabbing her rival, she doesn’t owe her rival money, even though she benefited from the stabbing. What’s true of an individual is also true of U.S. citizens in general.

What is particularly disconcerting about the claim to reparations is that blacks are richer and freer in the U.S. than anywhere else. Nor are U.S. taxpayers stingy with regard to the poor black community. As Levin points out in Why Race Matters, given the overrepresentation of blacks among welfare recipients and the progressive nature of state and federal income taxes, an enormous amount of money is transferred from non-black taxpayers to American blacks every year. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, the taxpayers gave an amount equal to a Marshall Plan to blacks every three years and this doesn’t take into account the valuable benefits of preferential treatment in education and hiring.

Reparations are owed, but unfortunately, the persons owed them are dead. It is a sad fact of the world that some injustices can’t be repaired.

The Constructivist

I've stopped contributing to our "Taking Sides" column, as preparations for my Fulbright year have been intense this month. For the next year, I'll be teaching and writing in Japan, so will only respond informally on this blog to The Objectivist's columns when he hasn't been able to line up guest columnists.

In terms of reparations, I agree that the standard versions of corrective or restorative justice that underlie most successful reparations claims (such as to survivors of Nazi forced labor/death camps or American internment camps) make the case for reparations to African Americans for slavery and de jure segregation difficult to sustain. These standard versions require there to be clear ways of identifying surviving victims and calculating what is owed to them, along with clear lines of state and/or corporate responsibility. Generally, even claims that meet these criteria are denied or delayed until most survivors have perished of other causes; payouts, when low, seem to insult the magnitude of the pain and suffering of the victims, yet when they are high, they invite charges of corruption in administration. Consider the controversies over Edwin Black’s IBM and the Holocaust, which may be interpreted to provide warrant for reparations being owed by IBM, and Norman Finkelstein’s The Holocaust Industry, which is a vigorous condemnation of lawyers and organizations that have profited by prosecuting reparations claims for Jewish victims.

Still, there are points in The Objectivist's argument that bear contesting. Whereas Michael Levin's Why Race Matters argues that welfare state benefits to African Americans are as good as reparations, not only is this a form of distributive rather than restorative justice, but as Ira Katznelson documents in When Affirmative Action Was White, Southern national and state legislators colluded in excluding African Americans from much of the New Deal and limiting their benefits when exclusion proved impossible. Indeed, as George Lipsitz shows in The Possessive Investment in Whiteness, even as the system of de jure segregation was being dismantled during and after the World War II years, practices such as red-lining ensured that the suburbs would be overwhelmingly white. Much of the wealth gap between African Americans and white Americans documented in such studies as Melvin Oliver's and Thomas Shapiro's Black Wealth/White Wealth, Dalton Conley's Being Black, Living in the Red, and Michael Brown et al.'s Whitewashing Race can be attributed to the disparity in home ownership rates post-WWII as white veterans and workers were offered easy credit and new housing in the suburbs that were not made available to African Americans. There are plenty of surviving victims of these social policies who could make strong cases against banks and local, state, and federal governments. State and corporate malfeasance and negligence could provide grounds for some kind of benefits to Africans Americans as a class for the cumulative effect of these relatively recent discriminations. If the government can calculate what is owed to the families of the victims of 9/11, it can certainly undertake a Truth and Reconciliation-style inquiry into the fiscal impact of systematic racial discrimination and oppression from the New Deal to the Great Society.

For further reading on these and related issues, I recommend consulting University of Dayton law professor Vernellia Randall's Apology and Reparations for Slavery page and University of Maryland professor Robert Fullinwider's The Case for Reparations.


TangoMan said...

Don't neglect the fact that most of the descendents of slaves are far, far better off living in the US than they would be living in Western Africa if their ancestors hadn't been enslaved. This is no justification or apology for slavery or the harm and suffering that slavery inflicted upon innocent people but is simply a rational calculus - living standards for poor Blacks in the US are greater than the living standards for a large segment of African populations.

Also, how to deal with the "statute of limitations" on reparations? My ancestors were likely slaves of the Romans, if I'm sure that if I dig deeply into my psyche I can muster up some indignation about the injustice perpetrated upon my ancestors and how I personally feel the stigma, even though no one stigmatizes me for my family history, and someone should be made to pay to right the wrong of the past. Come to think of it, I favor sticking the American taxpayer with the bill for Christopher Columbus opened up migration to America and he was Italian, and at one time, Genoa, his birth place, was within the Roman Empire. Q.E.D. LOL.

The Objectivist said...


I like your point and as always gain from from your posts. I am a little worried about a metaphysical problem that is associated with it.

Your argument is that but-for slavery the descendants would be living in West Africa and thus would be much worse off, thereby suggesting that they benefited from slavery. However, in running counterfactuals to determine causal effects, I think it best to use the likely alternative scenario (in philosophy, the closest possible world or worlds).

Under this scenario, the parents of the vast majority of descendants would never have met and reproduced and hence the descendants would haven't come into existence.

This raises the issue of whether someone is benefited by a practice that caused him to come into existence?

There are two approaches.

1. No. This is because we can't compare a person's well-being in a scenario when he exists to a scenario when he doesn't. This is because in the latter, there is no subject to have any level of well-being, 0 or other level.

2. Yes, so long as he has a life worth living. On this approach, we assume that a person who doesn't exist in a scenario has a 0 level of well-being in that scenario and hence he benefits from what caused him to come into existence.

These days I find 2 more plausible and think that we should thus conclude that slavery benefited descendants of slaves and the benefit baseline is non-existence rather than life in West Africa.

The Objectivist said...

Dear C and Tangoman:
I think C raises some powerful points, but I wish to disagree with them.

First, take C's claim that private discrimination gives rise to a moral claim to compensation.

Let's say that Archie decides he will only sell his house to white persons. George then can't buy the house. What right of George's is infringed on? Imagine that Ms. Souljah only dates black men. Hence, white men can't date her. Do they have some claim against Ms. Souljah? The answer is clearly no because owning your body and your life allows you to date, marry, and have sex with who you want. An analogous approach should be made with regard to owning a house and selling or renting it.

Now black individuals who suffered from discrimination might have a legal remedy since giving private claims of action is the most efficient way to end discrimination. But this should not be confused with the creation of a moral right to compensation in victims of discrimination.

The Objectivist said...

Let us address C's second point.

The large amount of money (on Michael Levin's back-of-the-envelope calculation, it's a Marshall Plan every three years) transferred to U.S. blacks does not count as compensation but rather as part of distributive justice.

I suspect this depends on why the money was given. If it was given as part of a general plan (and perhaps intent) to provide an equal or otherwise just distribution of wealth, then it doesn't count as compensation. But if the motivation and plan was to make up for past injustice, then it would seem to count as injustice.

Analogy: Rich Uncle drives drunk, crashes his car, and breaks his nephew's leg in the process. He then gives the nephew $500,000, which covers all the medical bills, pain and suffering, etc. If he gave it in response to the injury he caused, then the nephew is fully compensated. If instead, he gave this sum to all of his many nephews and nieces, then the injured nephew is still owed another $500,000.

At issue, here is why was the money given to poor African-Americans. Bruce might be correct about the intent, motivation, and criteria for giving it out.

The benefits of affirmative action? These have to be subtracted from any compensation owed. But I don't know how to value them.

The Objectivist said...

Dear C:
How would one in theory go about determining much damages are owed?

The Constructivist said...

TM, Suzette Malveaux addresses the statute of limitations argument--what do you think of her response?

The Constructivist said...

O, your comment on private prejudice misses my point that it was financial institutions, following government guielines, that offered easy credit to some and not others in the post-WWII era. Even if this was legal for a time, it remains immoral and hence some remedy beyond ending the practice deades later needs to offered under the terms of corrective or restorative justice.

TangoMan said...

We also need to develop an entirely new set of rules with respect to generational justice which can weigh the culpability of new immigrants, and new can defined as anywhere from 1 day in the US to multiple generations so long as the original immigrant arrived after either the abolition of slavery, or the passing of the Civil Rights Act, and why this new immigrant is obliged to transfer their wealth to the descendents of people harmed by slavery. I'm having a lot of trouble coming up with even a hint of rationale that could be used to justify the expropriation of income from Vietnamese Boat People to benefit folks (present day descendents) who faced less hardship, had more opportunity, were born into a culture, knew the language, and had special set-asides legislated on their behalf, all of which are designed to improve the lives of the descendents of slaves. Further complicating the issue is how to partition off the voluntary immigrants to the US who are Black, be they arrivals from Africa, the Caribbean, or South America. Further complications would also arise for the descendents who are the products of bi-racial relationships which were voluntary, rather than coerced.

As for Malveaux's response, I'm not terribly impressed. At the heart of the issue is the presence of proxies for their aggreived and the alleged perpetrators, and to adjudicate a case when the original actors have long since passed from this world would simply enshrine into law the principle of generational duty and obligation. Consider that I may have heard stories at my grandfather's knee of a dastardly wrong that was committed against his grandfather and that no satisfaction was ever achieved. Should I have the right to track down the descendents of the original alleged perpetrator, haul them into court, and argue for justice as a way to remove the stain that was allegedly inflicted upon my family?

The harms that are committed against people are actionable, but the harms committed against one's long dead ancestors should stay buried with those ancestors. Further, if we are to engage the argument that the descendents would have been better off today if their ancestors had been awarded justice when they were alive we cannot simply take it for granted that family wealth always increases across generations. It's quite likely that any family wealth that would have been passed down through the generations starting soon after the abolition of slavery would have evaporated. There are 3 likely outcomes: the wealth would have been sheparded, squandered or poorly managed. By the last I mean that the ancestors would have been taken advantage of in fair trading situations. Most of the initial ancestors were freed slaves, so it's unlikely that they were well schooled and thus had an increased risk of coming out the loser in trading-financial transactions.

So, how do we adjudicate the likely outcomes of the financial management issue across generations. Clearly, if we had some means of determining that each generation since the harmed generation would have actually managed to shepard, and multiply, their wealth, then the injustice committed against the family gains a bit in stature. However, by the same token, the ancestors who lost their wealth through the exercise of their own free decisions would leave their descendents with no claim whatsoever. How do we discern one group from the other? Further, which is the more likely outcome - accretion or dissipation of wealth across generations? Looking at the sociological data of today I'd argue that the dissipation of wealth is the more likely outcome.

I've gone on long enough. Reparations for long dead plaintiffs is bad legal theory. Slavery has existed throughout the ages and across the world. Are you prepared to see the assests of the descendents of the Barbary Coast pirates and the local sheikhs become legally attached here in the US because of a reparations claim in Northern Africa where the European or American family is suing because one of their ancestors was seized by pirates and sold into local slavery? How about the situation revolving around the captives taken by Vikings? How about the Romans?

The Constructivist said...

TM, you'll be surprised to find I agree with just about everything you wrote on the statute of limitations thing. Even crimes against humanity, which have no statute of limitations, can't be prosecuted against the dead. Which is why I emphasize what I emphasize in my brief response to O's argument (I'm closer to Fullinwider's position, in other words).

O, on the calculability issue for living victims of redlining, why not simply offer them now what wasn't offered in the past--access to easy credit for homeownership? People would simply have to demonstrate they were once turned down for such credit due to redlining, and banks that participated in the process in the past could set up a special mortgage fund. Let the compensation fit the crime is my motto, along with keep it simple, stupid. But look, there are any number of clever actuaries who could come up with something better. Not my job!

Plus, I'm losing internet access until I get my office set up in Fukuoka in mid-September. Happy blogging, you all!

The Objectivist said...

Dear TM and C:
I like your points, but think a different framework is correct. There are two types of wrongs: private and public (government).

Private wrongs:

Not giving someone credit or refusing to sell them a house is not an injustice. That is, it does not infringe on a moral right of the discriminated against party. For example, I have no right to own C's house. I don't gain one just because he decides to sell it.

If a private party damages a black person's body or property then compensation is owed. But it's clear the government & taxpayer don't owe it.

So the problem of Vietnamese and Laotian immigrants (who as a side note, if I remember correctly, use welfare in significant numbers) owing compensation doesn't arise.

Public Wrongs:

If the government owes money due to an injustice then all of its citizens owe money regardless of when they came to the country. For example, consider when a business partnership pays thugs to beat up a media critic. The partnership then owes the critic compensation and that has to come from the partners. This includes persons who joined the partnership after the beating occurred. Here it is because the business is an organ of its owners.

Now someone might argue that only those business executives who order the beating owe money, not the business itself. This might be correct.

However, unless one adopts this line, recent owners of a collective entity (whether partnership or country) can owe compensation.

The Objectivist said...

Dear C:

Let me prove my point. Let's say you don't want to sell your house to Klansmen or will sell it at only twice the price you ask of others.

Have you treated the Klansmen unjustly? Of course not.

How is this any different from banks which refused to lend to blacks at their lowest rates?

The Objectivist said...

Dear TM and C:

I can't find Malveaux's argument for on the statutue of limitations. Is it on the webpage or just summarized in the page C hyperlinked.

In any case, here is my question. Given TM and other's arguments on IQ and its predictive power. Why not do the following. Compare black IQ from any large group you want and see whether African-Americans, based on their IQ, would be expected to have more or less income and more or less representation in higher-end jobs.

TM, I don't mean to put you on the spot but do you have any idea what we'd find?

C - I suspect you would argue that IQ is environmentally affected. But then what baseline would you use instead? Note even if there aren't genetic factors that account for differences, there are likely socio-cultural differences (see, e.g., Thomas Sowell) that are likely going to have significant effects.


The Objectivist said...

I'm curious as to the proponents of reparations think that an apology is offered. One concern is that there is no one left to accept the apology. If this is correct, I wonder what implications this has for reparations/compensation for slavery.

The Constructivist said...

O, there's been a lot of apology and reparations-like stuff going on lately in VA and at Brown University. Any response?