Today I read 'The Case for Reparations' in The Atlantic. It is well-written, but far too many of its 15,000 words simply describe the injustices faced by black Americans, rather than argue the case for reparations as the only reasonable and right response to them. Here then are some of the problems that I believe inevitably undo any argument for reparations.
The impossibility of proper justification
Reparations would entail either 1) seizing money from businesses that profited from slavery, or 2) the disbursement of taxpayers' money by consenting governments. To preserve rule of law (circumstance 1) or democratic accountability (2), both actions would have to be justified by a standard of proof that is impossible to attain in judging a 150-400 year-old crime. That is, it is a burden of proof that historical research could not realistically bear - company X made a bundle from slavery, lost it in the Depression, and then built up a new fortune from scratch - how much do they have to pay? what about African-American Y who has suffered misfortune and injustice totally unrelated to race and slavery? Never mind the complex calculations, how to gather all that data?
The problem is in making a mixed argument - seeking a political and legal end using historical proofs. The historian cannot provide evidence strong enough to justify a legal decision to seize money, or a political decision to spend taxpayers' money (though I admit the last is debatable).
Reparation is thought justifiable as a form of redress, but it is also a punishment and one for which justification is no longer attainable. We could always disregard the question of justifiable punishment, and say we must pay reparations as a moral imperative, but doing so would damage rule of law and democratic accountability - given their historically proven value as defences against slavery and inequality, this would risk being self-defeating.
Money can't buy everything
Making a society pay for the sins of its ancestors is plainly absurd - if we have to take the rap for their crimes we should also get the credit for the good they did, so I deserve a medal at the very least for great-great-grandfather Hywel's bravery at Sebastopol (he didn't exist really). The reparation argument is saved from this absurdity because it says we should pay only for those crimes that still affect our society.
But this is another example of a muddled argument. Seeking restitution for a past wrong is not the same as reforming society, and I'm not sure the one segues into the other. In fact, this move takes the argument from the frying pan into the fire.
Consider that if the effects of crimes are monetized, the effects of good deeds should be also. So the reparation amount would have to be abated proportional to the positive things that have been done to mitigate the legacy of slavery, e.g. the Civil Rights Act, affirmative action. As the reparationist's entire argument is based on the premise that deeds can be translated into dollars, she would have to agree that it would be unjust for US taxpayers and companies to pay the full price of the crime of slavery, because at least some deeds have been carried out to reverse its effects.
But something strikes me as very wrong here. We would have to factor these reparatory deeds in to the reckoning, only so as to convert them into a reparatory monetary value - but isn't this last calculation redundant, overlooking the very real value the Civil Rights Act and affirmative action already have as reparations? As they already work towards the same end as reparations (justice for black America) why not continue this process and carry out further such actions in the future? Why bother with the extra monetary calculations?
To illustrate. Let's say a judge decided slavery warranted $100 trillion in reparations, but that the Civil Rights Act and affirmative action amounted to $5 trillion restitution each – after all, no one would deny that slaves in the 19th century lived worse lives than black Americans today. If that reduced the debt to $90 tn, then further acts of social justice would surely, eventually reduce the debt to $0. So on the reparationist's own terms, through social reform alone we could clear the debt of slavery, create a fairer society, and avoid entirely the problems of reparations detailed above. This would always be the better, most rational choice.
At this juncture we would surely feel that monetary reparation does not get at the heart of this matter. We intuitively want to take money out of the equation, I suggest, because paying off individuals as a solution to a social problem would be a mistake from the very start. Social dysfunction is remedied by social change (driven by e.g. law, as with the CRA), not by paying off for their troubles those afflicted by it, and leaving the dysfunction in place.
So as soon as the reparationist shifts the question - from restitution for a past crime to social reform in the present - cash payment becomes the wrong answer. It just doesn't answer the kind of problem that social injustice is - if the government tomorrow said it would tackle inner-city poverty by paying damages to poor families by way of apology, we'd think it not merely odd but incoherent, logically inconsistent. It would be, I think, a category mistake (there's a further argument to be made for why it is a category mistake, an argument that I perhaps misconceive, but I'll leave it for now - I think it's something to do with the fact that it is difficult, maybe impossible, to identify consistent moral agency across a society changing over time, but necessary if a claim for reparations is to be valid).
So slavery must be atoned for because of its enduring legacy, and to do that we must reform the society that it created. If I am right that this can really only be done by government action, education, better morality etc. then the reparationist's argument becomes indistinguishable from that of the liberal (and indeed the vast majority of reasonable people) who says that we should try to create a fairer and more fulfilling society for all its members.
So if that's where we end up, why bother with the case for reparations at all? For all the heat and noise generated by its rhetoric, the case for reparations, rationally conceived, proposes nothing that isn't proposed by everyday, vanilla-flavoured liberalism.
This does not exhaust the pro-reparation argument, but neither does it exhaust the anti-reparation argument. There is much more to be said and I'm open to challenges.