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Correcting Past Injustices

By: Bill Batt

History is replete with injustices. They affect not only persons individually but entire populations of people. In our time, various efforts are underway to newly or differently address and, if possible, rectify some of these injustices. 

Noticeable instances of these plaints in the United States are being raised by select groups of African-Americans calling for reparations for the enslavement of their ancestors the abuse of slavery that have consequences even today. Arguments for U.S. government reparations to the contemporary decedents of slaves, made at length by Ta-Nehisi Coates in Atlantic Magazine, in the New Yorker, and elsewhere seem to be gaining in strength.

The historic treatment shown to Native American peoples is also at issue. Native peoples of this continent were slaughtered in brutal massacres and wars, and herded on to reservations, and treated with indignities so impervious to acceptable description that, in some instances, they were excised from contemporary accounts. Native Americans have long claimed that their land was unjustly seized or stolen, which acts they argue were predicated on what is sometimes called the “Doctrine of Discovery.”

The treatment of immigrant populations as they settled in the United States and attempted to integrate into American society is also a sorry tale. Japanese Americans, who were already U.S. citizens, were imprisoned by order of the Roosevelt administration during World War II; and Jewish refugees seeking to escape from Nazi Europe were interdicted. These instances of egregious mistreatment are the results of errant public policies. They do not, however, speak about the injuries due to instances of faulty goods and services provided by private sector realms.

Recognizing and Accounting for Historical Injustices

In attempts by historians to be at once accurate, fair, and honest, many of these dreadful episodes are now being retold and explicated with evermore historical scholarship and detail. Indeed, in many cases, this unjust treatment is now recounted with far more openness and honesty than ever before (and oftentimes more than it is recounted and examined elsewhere in the world).

Native Americans imprisoned in St. Augustine, FL, in 1875.

Who bears the burden of responsibility for these sordid policies and their consequences?  Historians and social scientists of a conservative bent are prone to argue that the past has always been flawed, and that one cannot judge past practices by the standards of today.

But calls for reparations are resurgent, by financial means or by some equivalent mode of compenstation. They all are forms of what are often called “entitlements,” meaning that certain people are “owed” recompense to settle historical accounts as a matter of justice.

The theory of entitlements originates primarily from the work of Harvard philosopher Robert Nozick. He defined three kinds of entitlement: first, the rights to acquisition, particularly of property in the natural world; second, the merits of exchanges, I.e., how to judge the fairness of goods and services traded and otherwise distributed; and third, how social injustices that result from past government policies and actions should be compensated.

But resolving such claims can lead to an infinite regress. How, for example, should there be a resolution to the disputed lands in the Palestine/Israel conflict, given the decades and seemingly intractable complexities of the conflict? How should historic debts growing out of slavery in the United States be resolved? Can this type of debt ever come to an end? Some argue that past persecutions and injustices can never be adequately addressed, that partial and incremental political measures of ‘muddling through’ are the only recourse. Or one might just wipe the slates clean, something the Biblical practice of the Jubilee attempted to achieve.

The Remedy Proposed by Henry George

Adherents to the economic philosophy of Henry George believe that with regard to reparations there is an answer, at least for title claims to elements of nature. The solution involves historical recognition that all titles to natural resources––what George called “land,” have been acquired by force or fraud, and that therefore they are bogus.

So any notions of property ownership that obtain should be provisional, held only in usufruct. The word itself now sounds archaic. Because land titles and land values are socially created, the wealth produced from their use, known classically as rents, rightfully belongs to the community as a whole, however the community is defined.

A second aspect of this economic philosophy involves the distribution of said rents. They should first be used to finance the public goods and services necessary for a civilized society to function equitably and in full. This obviates and supplants the need for any taxes on people’s labor or the goods that they make. Any further surplus should be distributed severally to the people, in what have today come to be known as a “citizens dividends” or a “basic income guarantees.” The simplest manner of doing so, with the least administrative overhead, would be to give to every person, rich and poor alike, a share of the sum recovered as unearned income.

Today, the number of claimants seeking reparations for past injustices is growing by the year. Each party says it is most deserving. Each party argues that its case should take precedence. But the grievances of every party cannot and will not ever be satisfied. Past injustices are simply too many, and the claimants are too varied. 

A better solution is to recognize what Henry George proposed over a century ago. Recognizing people’s right to keep what they have worked for and earned respects the integrity and autonomy of every individual. In contrast the public collection of communally created rents would end the continued existence of inherited titles and privileges that lack legitimacy in any case. French enlightenment philosophers like the Physiocrats and Proudhon argued for just such remedies. This communal wealth can then be used to remediate whatever claims we deem appropriate.

Recent thought has also focused on the social provision of a universal basic income for all. The currency of this idea has spread to experimental practice in several countries, promising to address the loss of earning opportunities increasingly seen in post-industrial nations. Provisions such as these would recognize the interdependent creativity of social membership. They would also foster an understanding of our just desserts.

Support for this solution has come from all parts positions within the political spectrum. It is not, after all, only the impoverished members of society who would receive from what George called the “unearned increment.” The wealthiest members of society would also enjoy unearned rents. The key is in how earned and unearned income are defined. Recognizing and incorporating this fundamental distinction is central to the conception and implementation of such a proposed distributive justice design.

2 thoughts on “Correcting Past Injustices”

  1. Having begun study of Henry George and those before and after him, I am in complete agreement with the sentiments expressed in this piece. The private ownership of land and its resources is THE key requirement for any appropriate reparation to be achieved. We need to keep this view alive and publish it widely together with reasoned explanations to counter the resistance from the ‘rent takers’. If this is truth and justice, it will prevail if we persist. An associated evil is the current political system driven by ‘interest’ groups – read ‘rent-takers’ – who formulate and sustain government policy. That must be strenuously resisted for any actual reform to occur

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