Business Costs & Regulation

Government Reparations for Oppressive Acts

It is ethically dubious for descendants of oppressed peoples to seek reparations for wrongs done to their forebears, to be paid by contemporaries not responsible for long-ago sins.

Q. On what grounds, if any, do governments or corp­orations owe reparations to people harmed by their actions?

A. In my opinion, reparations make sense ethically only when offered to living individuals who can prove they were personally harmed by governmental or corporate actions we now believe were wrong.

For example, people jailed for years for a crime they didn’t commit should be compensated at least for their lost earnings, not to mention the pain of their lost freedom. And it was appropriate for the U.S. government to approve reparations in 1988 for the surviving American citizens of Japanese descent (some very old, some still in middle age) who were imprisoned in the U.S. at the start of World War II. In the international realm, reparations were appropriate for the survivors of the Nazi Holocaust and for more than 5,000 Kenyans tortured and jailed by the British colonial government in the 1950s and early 1960s.

But it is ethically dubious for the descendants of oppressed peoples to seek reparations for wrongs done to their forebears, to be paid by their contemporaries who were not responsible for long-ago sins. What’s more, it is well nigh impossible to quantify monetary damages and to define with any precision who should be eligible for a payment. (State governments grappled with this while settling historical Indian land claims in the 1970s.)

These dilemmas have led many Americans to reject the idea of U.S. reparations to today’s African-American citizens for 250 years of slavery and 100 years of legal discrimination that followed, until the 1960s. As Barack Obama, an opponent of reparations, put it in 2008, “The best reparations we can provide are good schools in the inner city and jobs for people who are unemployed.”

Students of history know that countless peoples of every race and ethnicity have been oppressed by someone else at some time. Without a statute of limitations and identifiable victims, reparations would be a never-ending blame game.

Have a money-and-ethics question you’d like answered in this column? Write to Editor in Chief Knight Kiplinger at ethics@kiplinger.com.

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