Recently a spate of prominent British companies apologized for their past involvement in slavery. Some have even declared intent to pay reparations. As private organizations these entities have the right to make their own choices on reparations.
Their stated reasoning, however, demands more scrutiny. The British government has not promised reparations to former colonies, but based on the astounding growth of the “church of wokeness,” political figures in coming months may be forced to suggest a reparatory agenda for the British West Indies or face cancellation. Conversations about slavery are emotionally taxing but inviting a bit of logic to the debate will not harm us. The argument for reparations rests on three claims: (1) Britain has a moral imperative to correct past injustices by compensating the descendants of slaves. (2) Slavery built Britain’s modern economy, hence reparations represent a just redistribution of wealth to former colonies. (3) Slavery retarded the development of the British West Indies, thus compensation is required.
These sentiments evoke visceral emotions but collapse when scrutinized. The first assertion fundamentally misunderstands the purpose of reparations. Reparations should deliver redress to victims who endured atrocities. We often hear that Jews and Japanese Americans have been compensated for the tragedies they encountered and that therefore reparations for slavery are justified. But this is an inaccurate comparison on several fronts. In these cases the victims themselves, or their direct descendants, were the beneficiaries of reparations. Furthermore, both scenarios reflect acts of barbarism ordered by the state itself. The Holocaust was a genocide instituted by the German state and its agents. The wrongful internment of Japanese Americans was ordered by the US state itself (although the program was more or less declared unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court in recent years. In contrast, those who would presumably receive reparations under current proposals were never themselves enslaved.