Why Reparations Will Never Work
As global wealth grows, the wealth of productive societies expands at lightning speed. Thereby, the material luxury of modernized countries grows at a rate that would have been deemed to be science fiction a few decades ago.
At the same time, the left-behind communities become aware of an exasperating condition. The cadence of their improvement is slow, so the gap widens that separates their attainment from that of the leading creators of progress. This is the case except for when equality through poverty is a chosen policy; the North Koreas stagnate as a matter of principle.
The problem is that some experience only a slow rise of living standards, while other societies rise like rockets. Summing up, whilst for most of the world expectations and performance rise, there are laggards whose frustration grows. The demand that the losers be compensated expresses that sentiment.
As a rule, poverty is not caused by nature. However, its gifts to the lucky few can bankroll easy abundance.
The observant discovers the roots of the discrepancy in wealth in man-made policies that are reflections of culture. Cultures can change, and the national character is not unalterable either. Even if bad policies can be replaced by good measures, the preferred instinctive response to the problem of backwardness tends to favor other remedies. It might be “human nature” or just a learned bad habit, to attribute shortcomings to the machinations of the agents of evil. Jews, capitalist, foreigners, heresy, and inventively imagined conspiracies are ingredients of well-selling snake medicine. These are popular, easily blamed enemies. It is simple to persuade the politically naïve that evil plotters cause the misery of decent folks that they fleece.
In most cases, secular religions arise to organize those convinced of having been robbed and artificially disadvantaged.
Consequently, the modern era’s great “isms,” even if they point to different culprits, concur in one decisive matter. All of them, national socialism, international socialism, fascism, and “Third-Worldism” claim to struggle against the forces of malevolence that collude to impoverish and subjugate mankind.
Once persuaded of this, it follows to the convert that the wicked must be combatted. Since the proof of the crime is the relative wealth of the impostors, this can be done by seizing their means through “nationalization” or outright looting. Those that direct this struggle are steeled by their belief that whatever battles the absolutely vile, becomes thereby a morally pure agent of redemption. Given the traits of the enemy, such a force can neither fail (“history is ours”) nor derail morally.
“History is on our side” and that the “Party/Leader is never wrong,” are cardinal features of modern mass movements. In a totalitarian manner, these intend to break with the past to bring about a “New Order.” These traits include a predatory commitment to redistribute the wealth built up in successful societies. Such an organization requires a strong leadership. It needs to convert its control of the culture into political power to create the “unity” the program presupposes.
We are living in an age in which a “guilt and atonement” culture prevails. It serves to explain missed modernization and the resulting discrepancy in the amount of well-being and rights enjoyed. The alleged victims of systemic disadvantage have become a well-organized and rewarded “profession.” Much of its power comes from lobbyists that are native to successful societies.
This element is often described as “liberal” and it is recruited in the privileged classes that are the cultural critics of those that have created the economics of plenty. Unimpeded by borders, this educated but materially unproductive elite forms one of history’s rare international classes. (The Church and the traditional aristocracy -not Marx’ proletariat- are precursors.)
The left-liberal elite of cultural leaders is attracted to its self-generated ideals and it resents the political power of practical men. Beyond that, the ability to convert the control over ideas into political might is considerable. The sway over the media, education, and of cultural life in general, all translate into an influence that, in practical terms, amount to power. In numerous professions, recognition, careers, and even earning a living, is not possible against the will of the morally empowered. Those active in practical politics can confirm that governing against the entrenched liberal elite is difficult. It will remain so until the “deplorable” common man converts his polite silence into indignant involvement.
The governing record of abstraction-chasing intellectuals has an undistinguished score. This has not inspired a critical revision of pet projects. Here a newly popularized concept to right the wrongs of the past by remodeling the future comes to mind. It is the initially catching, idea of “reparations”. It advocates the paying of compensation for the descendants of those whose ancestors have, according to the past’s practice, suffered wrongs by the present’s standards. At the moment, the project has put slavery in America in its cross-hairs. Expect the idea’s internationalization to follow.
Reparations are an attractive concept. It keeps that status until you examine the details. As a starter, there must be a group that underachieves by the general standards of its society. To make a claim, this condition must be attributable to a past wrong imposed by identifiable groups that can afford to pay.
Several difficulties emerge upon closer examination. Generations might separate the tort from the present. This makes tenuous the relationship of the past’s victims and the persons to be compensated now. The same goes for the nexus between history’s villains and those credited to be their inheritors. What share of the reparations shall burden a person that might have immigrated, as has this writer, in the fifties? How is the benefit of an individual with a victim on the family tree to be calculated if a subsequent ancestor intermarried with the “oppressors”? Is race, or whatever is declared to be one, going to be the sole standard? The rising number of fake claims seeking advantages by claiming victim status contain a warning. Should a Black PhD, or a Spaniard who moved to Mexico and then to the US, to get something? Will members of victim groups need to contribute to repay indigenous peoples such as Aztecs or Mayas? What will be done about women in general? Can one compute and deduct the worth of the advantages extended under Affirmative Action or a promotion in the attempt to meet a quota?
Interesting are the global implications. The world is full of victims whose ancestors might have been oppressors. Can Serbs raise claims against modern-day Turkey? If so, can a demand be made in the name of tens of thousands of Italians and Magyars massacred by Serbs at the end of WW2? How about the obligations of the Mongols that have destroyed Russia and who devastated much of Europe? Do the Greeks, themselves subsequently victims, owe something to Persia? An endless list indicates that compensation might be an attractive principle for the ignorant but totally impractical in the real world of the informed.
Reparations appear to be a well-meaning but unviable tool to correct history’s consequences. Beyond the confusion regarding who should get how much and for what, the concept has a further flaw. The reparations project is a typical proposal that assumes that those who “have” owe that to the ones that “want”. In this case, justice is to take from those that do not deserve their holdings in order to advantage their deprived victims. Operating this redistribution empowers those who can bribe their supporters. This might entrench those in power, but it will hardly create a fair society. Unless prevented by the state, the plucked “haves” - except those that leave for a receptive environment - will recover as they have the skills and the right attitude. Whatever has been syphoned off will discourage economically rational behavior but it will not permanently stifle the able.
Artificially injected wealth is unlikely to create lasting benefits. This is a reason why foreign aid has not triggered self-supporting change. You know the saying “to really help, do not send us fish, give us nets”. The infusion of money triggers hedonistic consumption and not shrewd investments. Money dispersed by the sprinkler method will generate support while it lasts. A productive and prosperous society leveled at a higher standard will not be among the outcomes. Free lunches can still an appetite. They cannot fill the pantry and recruit cooks. That feature makes them into a merry prelude to famine.
Image credit: Fibonacci Blue, via Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0