We live in a rich western democracy; we know that slavery is abhorrent and a crime against humanity; we also know that we as a country profited from the slave trade. Shouldn’t we pay compensation / reparations then? As decent, honest people, isn’t that the right thing to do?
This post is intended to provoke thought and discussion, nothing more. If you disagree, feel free to say so, and why.
There are at least 6 good reasons not to pay reparations for slavery:
1) We, the currently living Britains, didn’t invade or enslave anyone, why should we (through our taxes) be made to pay for someone else’s wrong doing? If your dad was a murderer, are you responsible and should you be made to pay for his crimes? If your grandfather was a rapist and one of his victims had a child, are you financially responsible for that child and their family?
2) If we’re in the business of making people pay for historical aggressions, how far back do you go?
- The Normans invaded and enslaved Britains, can I have reparations from the French?
- The Vikings invaded and enslaved Britains, can I have reparations from the Scandinavians?
- The Saxons invaded and enslaved Britains, can I have reparations from the Germans?
- The Romans invaded and enslaved Britains, can I have reparations from the Italians?
- My family are Irish originally, can I have reparations from the English… hold on, that’s me!?!
3) When arguments are fought and won in court, a general legal principle is to put people back into the position they would have been in before they were harmed. Should we then send all people of Jamaican decent back “home” to live the life they would have lived had the British never arrived in Jamaica? I doubt many African-American descendants of the slave trade would want to be shipped back to the Congo!
Also bear in mind that slavery was prevalent in Africa before the Europeans arrived. Most African slaves transported to the New World for example, were enslaved by other Africans, then transported to the ports by Africans and sold by Africans to the Europeans. Check out the history of the Kingdom of Kongo for example:
4) We should focus on solving current slavery issues first, before we worry about slavery from hundreds of years ago. Slavery has never been more prevalent than it is right now, with an estimated 20-40 million slaves currently alive in the world, up to 3x more than all the historic slaves trafficked during the 400 years of the 15th to 19th centuries.
If you’ve been to a hand car wash or had your nails done in a shopping centre, the chances are YOU have directly paid cash for work from a modern day slave! Just because they weren’t in chains picking cotton, doesn’t make them any less a slave.
5) Who would you pay reparations to? How would you calculate it? You couldn’t just pay reparations to 1 country, you’d be setting a precedent and every affected country would want it too. Would you pay it to the govt’s of the countries involved? But many of those countries, particularly in Africa, don’t exist any more. Would you pay it to the descendants of those trafficked by slavery? Do you deduct a proportion if their slave ancestor married a western native, so they are only half descended from a slave, as opposed to a “pure-blood” slave descendant if their ancestors only married other slave descendants?
But doesn’t that mean you’d be paying potentially wealthy western citizens who don’t need the money and are hardly disadvantaged as a result of the slave trade? Don’t the people in the countries they came from need it more? What about the slaves that died, they have no descendants to pay? How do you even prove that a currently living person is descended from a particular slave from 400 years ago?
Because huge sums of money are involved, the whole process would inevitably be tied up in court for decades, as different interested parties sought to increase their slice of the pie by challenging the calculations. Which would no doubt make the lawyers happy if no one else!
6) As a country, we’re broke. Yes we have a lot of money sloshing round the system, but the country is massively in debt and still spending more than we earn each year; isn’t that the definition of insolvency? Our national debt is currently £1.78 trillion, but that doesn’t include the unfunded public sector pension liability of £1.85 trillion, or the PFI debt of £267Bn, making a total of £3,897 Billion, or £3,897,000,000,000 if you like. That’s a colossal £124,000 for every one of the 31.4M tax payers in the country.
There’s absolutely zero hope of us paying off that debt; it took us 100 years to pay the £1.9Bn debt we incurred to pay for World War 1, having paid 3x more in interest (£5.5bn) than we borrowed. By that measure, we’ll have to find not only the £4Tn national debt, but another £12Tn for the interest payments on top! Note that £1.9Bn in 1914 is approx £2Tn in today’s money. So it took 100 years to pay off a debt that was half the size of UK’s current one! And of course it’s going up each year, not down.
If you are a UK taxpayer, YOU PAY approx £1,600 every year towards the £48bn interest the gov’t pays on the UK’s current debt. The current UK gov’t deficit (how much we spend more than we earn) is £32Bn, which means if we had no national debt interest payments, we would be £16Bn in surplus. That’s £16Bn that could be spent each year on social care, hospitals, teachers etc.
THIS is the real source of austerity. We are suffering now for the debt our parents and grandparents ran up! We simply can’t afford to pay £Bn’s in reparations, we would literally need to borrow that money knowing that we will not pay that back in our lifetime. Ethically and morally we can’t saddle our children and grandchildren with having to pay for yet more of our spending, or for a debt neither they nor we incurred.
We are (not so) slowly but inexorably heading the way of Greece. If you’re in your 20’s or 30’s and think you’re going to get a state pension when you retire… think again. Why do you think the gov’t is pushing the pension age up? It knows the current system is just unaffordable.
Anyway, I digress. Solve those 6 problems, then we’ll talk about paying reparations.