Reparations As a Deserved Investment, Rather Than As an Atonement
I want to discuss the idea of reparations for the descendants of slaves in the context of the ideas in two previous essays.
In the first essay, "Discrimination As a Sign of More General Wrongdoing", I argued that many cases of mistreatment of minorities, women, or other disadvantaged groups are really also cases of bad behavior toward, or poor treatment of, people in general but are more noticeable when seeming to be discriminatory or racist or misogynist besides just being uncivilized, rude, mean-spirited, or in some cases simply erroneous or otherwise problematic in general. (For an example of general problematic or erroneous acts, see "A Perfect Example of Considering General Wrongdoing or a General Problem to Be Discrimination.) Slavery is a terrible activity, often brutal and deadly, and in America it was primarily also racist, but it is also a specific, extreme case of the more general moral problem of not paying a fair wage.
In the second essay, "Fair Economic Trade Across Generations", the salient point is that people often make a contribution to the future that is far beyond the payment they receive from it at the time, and that many forms of 'moth and rust' (Matthew 6:19) can rob from them the value of what they can get in return for their work later in life when they will no longer be able to work as hard or as much to continue making money or to replenish the lost value of their savings and original earnings. The value paid for their labor may even have been fair and reasonable compensation at the time, but not in proportion to the value over time of what they produced. And it is worse when what they were paid was not reasonable compensation even at the time because they were not even paid a fair share of the profits they were known at the time to be generating.
The easiest example to illustrate the point is the difference between accepting a fee as compensation for work versus accepting a share in the profits that the work helps eventually generate. If you accept a fee as payment and the product or service you created generates a great deal of income beyond what was expected, you have not received sufficient payment for the value of your work. It is not that you are being unfairly cheated, but that you are being accidentally under rewarded or under compensated. An example I often use is suppose actors decide to help a friend produce a film that is important to him but that no one expects to have any box office appeal or success. They work for free or for a very nominal amount of money. But the film ends up, perhaps years later, being wildly successful financially. I use that normally to argue that decency would require the friend who made the film to give those who helped him a fair and reasonable share in the profits, even though they had not asked for that to do their work and it was not part of any agreement or contract. But for my purposes here, the point is not about the obligations of the producer, but about the future value of the product relative to the compensation that was earned for helping make it, and what that means about what society might owe those who helped make it years later if they are on hard times because they never earned sufficient money to last them -- especially through changing economic circumstances.
Now suppose that the producer of the film had in hand a lucrative contract with a TV network before s/he even started making the film, but didn't tell anyone. At that point if s/he accepted free or nominally compensated work, s/he would be doing so unfairly to the friends that were helping out. Their labor would be being unfairly compensated at the time in this case because it was known to be monetarily worth more. In the first case it will have been fairly compensated at the time, but turned out later to have been worth far more than what was thought, known, or paid.
[Temporary digression:] Of course, the possibility I have not mentioned is that the movie is expected to do decently and actors and crew hired to make it are paid a wage that is fair according to that expectation, but the movie flops and their earnings turn out to be worth more than what they generated is monetarily worth. That is a more complex case ethically, and I don't have a full solution for it, but even failed work is sometimes necessary for society to have the benefits it ends up with, given that work cannot always be known in advance to be valuable and a certain amount will simply fail, in many cases randomly and unpredictably. Payment for that work is something then like insurance money paid for an unexpected loss. For example, suppose a pharmaceutical company researches 35 vaccine possibilities, one of which proves effective and safe, and the others fail. All had to be tested, and if there was no particular reason to expect success from the one that passed, it seems fair to me to pay all the researchers equally based on the profit of the successful vaccine. Everyone's work was needed even though everyone's work could not be successful. That is just a necessary expense to society, it seems to me if they want to have vaccine. Similarly if films are important to society, people should be willing to have to pay for what turn out to be flops -- presuming there is not negligence involved and that the flops were good faith, reasonable efforts.Now in some cases compensation to workers is insufficient for the work done because employers, stock holders, or company management siphon off more than their fair share of the company earnings no matter what the price of the products and services being sold, but in many cases compensation is insufficient also because products or services are sold by management and owners of the company for too little money in order to have high sales volume (at the expense of the workers) and it is consumers who benefit unfairly from the low price. For workers in developing nations, for example, who are paid pennies for making a shirt that sells for, say, $9 in the United States, it should hardly affect sales in affluent countries if the price were raised to $9.50 or $10 and that extra charge went solely back to the people who made the shirt. That additional money could make a significant difference to the quality of their lives in their society and the opportunities they can have and give to their children. Slavery unfairly benefited slave owners, of course, but it also unfairly benefited the overall society whose goods and services were provided by slave labor at a price likely much lower than fair trade labor would have cost.
The Relevance to Slavery and ReparationsAlthough slavery in the United States was about the enslavement and often brutal or deadly mistreatment of black people, human trafficking, some of which is brutal and deadly also, does not only victimize people of color. Slavery is the extreme case of inadequate compensation for labor, but it is not the only case. Sweat shops took advantage of the poor, often women and children. Low wages even "minimum wage" that is not really a livable wage, take advantage of many people, if it is an unfair wage in proportion to the value of what the labor produces. Of course, the loss of freedom involved in slavery, even if slave owners were otherwise kind to their slaves is a human tragedy; and brutality and murder of slaves are heinous wrongs far beyond the issue of low income and loss of liberty.
And beyond the problem of a non-livable wage or a barely livable wage, where people cannot buy all they need even when employed and working hard and helping others make or have far more than they need, there is the problem of sufficient wage to last a lifetime, and/or to pass on as an inheritance, even if saved or invested wisely and used frugally. The problem of fair economic trade across generations or over time is two-fold: 1) insufficient compensation for the person who did the work to be able to have a decent lifestyle when s/he is older, and 2) insufficient compensation to leave as a financial, educational, and other opportunity legacy to one's descendants. As unfair as slavery was to the slaves themselves, that cannot be remedied now because all of them are dead. The concept of reparations is, or should be, meant to address the ongoing unfairly insufficient legacy they were able to leave that has hampered the economic and educational opportunities of their descendants. It is the insufficient opportunities for poor people that are the general problem. They could become self-sufficient and earn their own money if they had opportunities to make a contribution and realistic learning opportunities to do it. Being sent to bad schools with unmotivated other students is not a reasonable learning opportunity, even if some people are able to get an education for themselves that way.
Thinking of reparations as providing ongoing opportunities for poor people to be able to contribute to society through good work for which they are fairly remunerated and able to extricate themselves from poverty makes moot all the objections usually raised against reparations as payment of some sort (whether as a fine or as atonement) for past wrongs to slaves. It won't matter whether a poor person or the children of poor people are the descendants of slaves or not; it won't matter that some descendants of slaves don't need the money because they or their ancestors did well after slavery. The usual objections are that it is too difficult to be able to determine and disburse in a fair way reparations paid only to the descendants of slaves, and the objections that the current generation includes neither perpetrators nor victims of slavery, all of whom are long dead. Those objections are avoided by considering the proper reparations for slavery to be, not just some sort of lump sum monetary payment for past wrongs and previously stolen labor, but the providing of real opportunity for the descendants of slaves and others in society to be productive members of that society which has thrived in large part because of the work done by slaves, which if properly remunerated at the time likely would have provided such opportunities for their descendants and others.
Society is stronger overall because of the work done and contributions made, forced or otherwise, by slaves. The least we can do is to provide those opportunities for their descendants which they were robbed of the chance to provide them. And it is an obligation for us to do so. Their descendants and others whom they would have wanted to benefit from their work and be able to make their own contributions should be able have realistic opportunity to do so as part of the legacy they provided. Instead of seeing reparations as just payment for past wrongs, it should also, and primarily be seen, as an investment in the futures of their descendants and of society in general. Not all poor blacks are poor or disadvantaged because of just slavery, Jim Crow laws, segregation, or discrimination, and not all affluent whites have wealth and success because of them. The problem is better seen and solved as being not a problem of fair distribution of previously denied wages but as a remedy for the general societal heritage of racism and other denied opportunities to poor people in general of all races (especially those people who worked hard and made a contribution not sufficiently paid for or rewarded). The bounty we have as a nation was in large part built by the backs of those never fairly rewarded for their work. The bounty they helped produce should be utilized to help their descendants and others they would have wanted to thrive do so.
While it is easy to see how slavery, Jim Crow laws, segregation, and second-class citizenship in general caused many of the descendants of blacks living under those conditions, to be unfairly financially and educationally impoverished and deprived of opportunities to improve their lives and contribute to society, such educational deprivation and lack of real opportunity afflict others too; and it is important to solve those problems because without solving them, any money simply given to the poor or earned by them generally will simply "trickle back up", or even flood back up, to the rich or others simply more well off without having done any lasting good for the people it was given to.
In a good economic system, people contribute more than they 'cost' -- multiplying the benefits of collective work so that each person's rewards for their work is greater than it would have been had they worked alone. The simplest case to see is that if an object too heavy to move for either of two men blocks them from their goals, they can both reach their goals if they work in concert to remove the object. Or consider communities where people worked together to build barns for each other, barns which were built pretty quickly and which couldn't likely have been built at all by each person working alone to build his own. In that regard, as the saying goes, it is important to see each person as two hands to help rather than simply as one mouth to feed. Collectively, we each potentially help everyone else and ourselves have more benefits rather than greater costs. It is not just more humane to be a more inclusive society but it is potentially beneficial to those who help bring it about.