There has been a lot of discussion over the past few days about the idea of reparations. It began with this article by Ta-Nehesi Coates. This prompted a series of responses. A couple I thought worth looking at included Kevin Williamson at National Review and Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution. Both of these articles make worthwhile observations, while pointing out some of the problems with the analysis. William Jacobson similarly points to some of the unanswered questions:
Coates never gives the answer as to who gets what and how.
And that’s ultimately the problem with reparations arguments that are not based upon the people causing the harm paying the people directly harmed by specific conduct soon after the conduct is remedied.
f you can’t answer the question of why a Vietnamese boat person has to pay reparations for the conduct of white plantation owners more than a century earlier, then you can’t make the argument.
If you can’t answer the question of why two successful black doctors living in a fashionable suburb should get reparations paid for by the white children of Appalachia, then you can’t make the argument.
If you can’t answer the question of why the adult black recent immigrant from Paris should be pay or be paid reparations based on the color of his skin for crimes committed in a land he did not grow up in, then you can’t make the argument.
And what about the increasing number of children of mixed race?
I certainly welcome the conversation about reparations, because I think the topic forces us to think about hard and difficult truths, including the idea of corporate responsibility. But I’m left with several fundamental concerns about the utility of the debate as it is actually playing out:
1) Is there the political will for reparations (or is there likely to be)? I think the answer is simply no. If I’m right, we’re wasting time when there may be useful things we can actually do. I have similar thoughts about Thomas Piketty’s book – where his policy solutions seem to be impossible.
2) Can we come up with any coherent theory of who pays what to whom? Some of those questions noted above are part of that. Again, I think the answer to this issue is likely not, again making the idea a non-starter. Maybe it could have done some good early on, but I think we’re so far down the road (new waves of immigration, interracial identity, etc.) it’s unclear how much good we could do.
3) There is also the issue of other kinds of disadvantages. The idea of reparations focuses on financial loss, but even if we could deal with that, there are a number of other factors contributing to inequality. Things like family, cultural values, good-old-boy networks, and so on. Write everyone a check without addressing all these factors, and we may not put a dent in the inequality issue.
4) It’s also worth thinking about whether reparations would move us forward in race relations and finally resolve these historic debts. If they would, I think I’d be in favor despite the other problems (though I fear we might create a new class of aggrieved citizens). But honestly, I have serious doubts about that possibility. If some view reparations as a down payment, or if other factors maintain some of the social inequities that exist, then we might have further rounds of discussions – which could very plausibly lead to greater racial strife, not less.
I honestly wish there were an easy way to deal with this. I just don’t see one at the moment.