Amartya Sen and reparations

Back in 1982, Peter Bauer wrote a book in which he, among other things, defended capitalist institutions on desert theory grounds. This was problematic because desert theory is an utter disaster as a justification for capitalism because capitalism doesn’t even remotely adhere to it. Amartya Sen, an economist who also has serious economic philosophy expertise, proceeded to shred Bauer in a review of the book.

Among other arguments, Sen made the pretty straightforward point that desert theory is inconsistent with a world in which resource distributions are partially a function of inherited advantage, especially when that advantage is itself a function of past injustice that was inconsistent with desert theory (exploitation, plunder, enslavement, colonialism, etc.).

Bauer had this to say in response:

(9) How far back should we go to redress historical wrongs? Should China or the Soviet Union compensate persons in Iraq for the destruction wrought by the Mongols from Central Asia, with lasting consequences? And how do we allow for changes in the idea of what is right and wrong?

This is the standard line about how the problem with rectifying an injustice is that it sets you down a slippery slope towards rectifying all injustice.

As this slippery slope argument is trot out in response to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ piece on reparations, it might be worthwhile to take note of Sen’s pithy response:

Bauer’s rhetorical question (point 9) as to “How far back should we go to redress historical wrongs?” does not really affect those who do not seek moral justification of inherited advantage. It is, on the contrary, peculiarly relevant to the position of those who—like Bauer—do seek it.