More Notes on Reparations

I wrote a post last week about the political valence of reparations. In it, I discussed the ways in which reparations fits into different philosophies of political economy. I am not going to rehash that piece here, but I recommend you read it before pushing on below. Here, I want to add a few other notes that I think are worth bringing in, given the current state of the internet debate.

1. Can Reparations Be Race Neutral?
For both political and practical reasons, the most prominent reparations plans are somewhat oddly race-neutral. For instance, the Darity-Hamilton Baby Bonds plan involves transferring wealth to all children born into the bottom half of the wealth distribution. Because Blacks are overrepresented in the bottom half of the wealth distribution (even more so than they are overrepresented in the bottom half of the income distribution), this is seen as having a reparative effect in that it would close the overall racial wealth gap considerably.

But does this actually count as reparations? It’s really a race-neutral generalized leveling of wealth across the entire society. If race-neutral programs that disproportionately benefit Blacks count as reparations (a principle these kinds of plans implicitly endorse), then basically any egalitarian program can be said to have reparative effects. If you allow race-neutral programs to count as reparations, then it becomes difficult to see how reparations necessarily differs from egalitarianism except in its branding.

2. Must It Go Beyond Your Typical Policy Preferences?
On its face, it seems to me like a reparations policy must go beyond your normal policy preferences. If you believe that everyone is fundamentally owed public health care, then you cannot say public health care counts as reparations, even if it disproportionately benefits Blacks. Similarly, if you think everyone is owed public education, then you cannot say public education counts as reparations. If you think everyone is owed the protection of a robust welfare state, then a robust welfare state also cannot be reparations.

The reason these things cannot be reparations is that they are owed to people simply as members of society (assuming you believe that). They are not owed to them for special reasons related to slavery and Jim Crow (or whatever else). Reparations thus needs to be something extra you provide to Blacks (or other relevant groups) beyond what you think everyone in society is entitled to.

This seems like a simple enough formulation, but it’s actually the source of great problems depending upon your own economic justice philosophy. If you are a libertarian and believe (roughly) that people are only owed whatever they receive through “voluntary” transactions within capitalist institutions, then it is easy enough to say simple income and wealth transfers can constitute reparations. And indeed, many libertarians do say that.

But if you are an egalitarian and believe that people are already owed distributive equality, then identifying special actions that can count as reparations becomes very difficult. For an egalitarian, the wealth gap is a problem regardless of how it came about. Even if there never was any racial discrimination or slavery or Jim Crow or whatever, an egalitarian would look at the wealth gap and say there is an injustice that must be remedied by reordering the distribution of resources. So, if you think that such reordering is already required, then you cannot say such reordering is reparations. Reparations must be something special above and beyond your normal policy preferences.

Given the egalitarian’s preexisting desire to level out distributions, it actually becomes somewhat difficult to identify a reparations policy that egalitarians wouldn’t already support as part of their normal ideal political economy. And if it would already be supported as part of their normal ideal political economy, it is not in fact reparations.

3. Would Intuitions on Reparations Change if the Distribution Were Different?
The most generic way of thinking about reparations is to analogize it to compensating workers who are victims of wage theft or to analogize it to compensating victims of other kinds of civil harms like battery. In these cases, the commission of wage theft or battery creates a certain legal liability that is discharged when the offending party pays a certain sum of money to the aggrieved party.

In the legal situations, the obligations to pay the aggrieved party the sum of money obtains no matter what the parties’ background resources are. So, even if the offending party is way poorer than the aggrieved party, they still have to pay the lost wages or the civil damages.

But would anyone actually insist upon reparations if the wealth inequality was flipped? For instance, imagine that, due to slavery and Jim Crow and the like, Black wealth is a certain fixed amount lower than it would “otherwise” be. But despite this drag on Black wealth accumulation, Blacks were actually 5x wealthier than Whites (but would have been 6x wealthier in the counterfactual). In this situation, would we really say that, for justice to be served, we would need to enact reparative transfers from Whites to Blacks? That we need to increase wealth inequality by transferring from a group that is 1/5th as wealthy as the group being transferred to?

This is what would be necessary to right the wrong in the same sense as a civil harm, but I suspect people wouldn’t think about it the same way in this scenario.

If flipping the inequalities actually flips your view on whether reparative transfers should happen (i.e. you wouldn’t call for reparations if it were Blacks with the wealth advantage even if their wealth advantage was less than it would otherwise be), then what you seem to actually have are pro-egalitarian intuitions not pro-reparations intuitions. That is, you are troubled by the wealth gap regardless of how it came about and even if it came about in the most pristine of capitalist situations. That would still make you an advocate of leveling for its own sake, but would re-raise the difficulties in (2) about cogently fitting reparations into a radical egalitarian philosophy that already wants to level for reasons unrelated to any history.

Like I noted in my initial post on this, reparations serves the practical political ends of egalitarianism given the contingent wealth distribution that actually obtains. And so there is no reason an egalitarian or socialist or similar shouldn’t come out for it (including Sanders). But if we are talking about the philosophy of reparations, it is (perhaps unexpectedly) a much more confounding topic for left-egalitarians than it is for right-wingers, and libertarians especially. Because the right leans more heavily on process (“voluntary transactions”) and desert (“get what you produce”) to define distributive entitlement, it’s a lot easier for them to endorse a one-off reordering of the existing distributive outcome to correct for prior deviations from process and desert. Because the left’s theory of distributive entitlement already focuses so heavily on distributive outcomes, it’s a lot harder to distinguish a special reparative reordering from the normal ongoing reordering that is already endorsed as a permanent feature of an ideal political economy.