Reverse reparations and status quo bias

Status quo bias is a phenomenon in which the current state of affairs is taken as the baseline against which policy proposals are measured. It’s a devilishly strong bias that ensnares even the cleverest analysts, especially on economic policy topics. The status quo bias is also driving a significant amount of the anti-reparations arguments being made in response to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ recent Atlantic piece.

The arguments infused with status quo bias usually refer to edge cases where reparations seems not to make as much sense. So it is remarked that some subset of white people are new immigrants or did not benefit so much from all of the exploitation and plunder and such. It is also remarked that some subset of black people are new immigrants who are not really appropriate targets for reparations, that some blacks may even have been beneficiaries of the exploitation in some circuitous ways, and so on.

The upshot of this analysis is that moving from the current social state to a reparations social state would involve some transferring that doesn’t make much sense. That doesn’t seem fair. And so we shouldn’t do it.

But suppose now that we carried out reparations. It doesn’t particularly matter what the policy was, but for simplicity sake, suppose it was a progressive wealth tax on self-identified whites that funded transfers to self-identified blacks. So now reparations is baked into the status quo of our hypothetical society.

Someone then raises a proposal that we reverse the reparations. That is, we implement a policy of wealth transfers from blacks to whites that essentially mirror the reparations that occurred previously.

What would the argument for reverse reparations be exactly? It would presumably be that there is a small percentage of blacks who have more wealth than they deserve and small percentage of whites who have less wealth than they deserve. But this has argument has serious defects.

For one, can you identify which whites are the small percentage who have less wealth than they deserve? Can you identify which blacks have more wealth than they deserve? You can’t. So would it really be fair to transfer wealth from blacks, the great majority of whom do not have more wealth than they deserve, to whites? Does it really make sense to do this because there are some hypothetical individuals for whom it would make things more right even at the expense of making things much wronger in aggregate? Surely not.

If we snapped our fingers tomorrow and reparations happened automatically, there would be no remotely serious argument for implementing a regime of reverse reparations. It would be an overwhelmingly negative policy that was overwhelmingly justice-subtracting. Even divorced from the specific logic of rectification, reverse reparations would involve plunging an entire race of people into holding little to no wealth in order to make another race extremely wealthy.

In theory, the policy of not-reparations and reverse-reparations should generate similar conclusions as to their merits. If you wouldn’t undo reparations after they’d been implemented and baked into the status quo, then it makes no sense to say that you oppose reparations right now. But status quo bias is a hell of a drug, especially when joined with people who have a lot of unearned economic advantages to lose.

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