A Business Historian’s Thoughts on Reparations for Slavery

18 09 2019

Reparations for slavery are very much in the news, both in the US, where the Democratic presidential primary has included debates about this issue, and here in the UK, where the University of Glasgow has agreed to pay slavery reparations in the form of a joint venture with the University of the West Indies to be called the Glasgow-Caribbean Centre for Development Research. The descendants of African slaves, particularly those who live in developing countries such as Jamaica, deserve compensation, although I’m not convinced that the University of Glasgow reparation scheme would really stand up to much scrutiny when viewed with an effective altruism lens. (An unconditional cash transfer to the poorest individuals in Jamaica would likely be a more cost-effective form of reparations).  Rather ironically, I think that many development experts (e.g., Chris Blattman) would probably doubt the cost-effectiveness of the Glasgow-Caribbean Centre for Development Research as mechanism for reparations.

The present-day issue of reparations for slavery and similar historic human right abuses is a very complex one and I have a relatively open mind about how reparations should be structured.  However, there are some principles that I think should guide our discussions.  My own view is that it is legitimate to ask corporations such as the University of Glasgow to pay reparations but that it wouldn’t be legitimate to track down and demand payment from the descendants of the natural persons who owned slaves. The same principle applies to German companies involved in the Holocaust, an event that is still within living memory.

That being said, it is really unfortunate when the politics of reparations distorts economic-historical research aimed at measuring the role of slavery in promoting economic growth. I’m thinking here of  the much discussed research of the highly controversial historian Ed Baptist. Rhetorical history used by social activists and peer-reviewed academic history should not be confused as it does a disservice to both. Baptist is a clearly a citizen who cares greatly about injustices in the present. He’s right to do so. However, his claims that the wealth the US enjoys today is largely or substantially the result of slavery has been demolished by respected researchers, as are many of the supporting arguments he has marshalled to try to support this argument. I also find the “ghost acres/sugar calories from slaves” argument that has been advanced to explain why England not China had the Industrial Revolution to be implausible as a way of accounting for the Great Divergence.

I think that it is really important for us as researchers to distinguish between political activism and advocacy for legitimate causes and academic research. To blend the two risks distorting scholarly research and, crucially, distorting the allocation of scarce resources to philanthropic ventures that have high administrative overheads and a low altruistic rate of return.

I would also suggest that the narrow focus in the slavery reparations debate on getting institutions in Western countries to pay reparations risks diverting attention from the issue of Modern Slavery.  Near slavery conditions can be found in the oil rich countries in the Arabian peninsula that use the “kafala system” — in fact, given that African chattel slavery was only abolished some of these countries a few years before the kafala system was implemented in the wake of the post-1973 boom of these countries, one can argue that the linkages between historical slavery and present-day injustice are much stronger in this part of the world than in the West. Slavery was abolished in what is now the UAE in 1963 and only after sustained pressure from Britain.

 


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