What Would Reparations Require?

Posted on Posted in Basic Income, liberal/conservative, libertarianism, Political Philosophy, Politics

Since Ta Nehisi Coates’ recent piece on reparations there has been significant discussion on the need for some sort of reparations. Coates leaves it an open question what reparations would require. But it really isn’t that complicated what reparations would require. The basic model of reparation is laid out by the libertarian Robert Nozick.

Nozick, in his book Anarchy, State, and Utopia argues against general redistribution of wealth through taxation and instead in favor of what he calls “rectification of injustices.” He says:

The principle of rectification presumably will make use of its best estimate of subjunctive information about what would have occurred (or a probability distribution over what might have occurred, using the expected value) if the injustice had not taken place. If the actual description of holdings turns out not to be one of the descriptions yielded by the principle, then one of the descriptions yielded must be realized.

We have no reason to think that had the injustices of slavery, Jim Crow laws, segregation, redlining, racist drug policies, etc not taken place then there would be equal levels of wealth distribution between African Americans and white Americans. So, given Nozick’s principle to make the actual distribution match our best estimate of what would have happened had there been no injustice we should be working to ensure equal distributions of wealth between blacks and whites in America.

The ironic thing here of course is that Nozick was vehemently opposed to using distributions of wealth as the primary factor in determining how we should redistribute wealth, but that is exactly what his rectification principle requires in this case.

Some of the things that would need to be equal before we can say that we have rectified the injustice would income levels, wealth levels, educational achievement levels, incarceration levels, etc.

Here are some statistics regarding the above measures:


The median wealth of white households is 20 times that of black households and 18 times that of Hispanic households, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of newly available government data from 2009. 


At the median, black families made $39,715 in 2010. . . As a percentage of white median family income, blacks made 61 percent in 2010.


In 2012, blacks made up 14% of college-aged students (ages 18 to 24), yet just 9% of bachelor’s degrees earned by young adults.


Black men were more than six times as likely as white men to be incarcerated in federal and state prisons, and local jails in 2010.

We would need to begin and continue reparations, or as Nozick says “rectification,” until the above four measures are equal between the two populations.

There are a number of other metrics that we should consider including things like levels of physical health, mental well being, levels of discrimination faced in various situations like applying for a job, etc. But the above give us a good starting point.

What would be the best methods to achieve rectification. Presumably the best methods would be the ones that could achieve this goal the quickest. I know some people have said it is not as simple as just writing a check or that they are not asking for money. I totally disagree. I think along with other programs, like free higher education, providing significant cash assistance is going to be the most expedient way to rectify past injustices. But I’m also in favor of a universal basic income so maybe I’m biased here. Ultimately the method isn’t important as long as the injustices are rectified.

As a starting point for discussion I suggest we offer a basic income of $24,000 per year to all African Americans. To be continued until African Americans have equal levels of wealth, income, educational achievement, incarceration rates, physical and mental health, and discrimination.

As a side note, I think what the recent discussion of retribution shows is that libertarians and conservatives are not really serious about their conception of justice. It is clearly not a consistently held rational worldview. If it was they would be the ones leading the charge for reparations. They would be demanding reparations for the terrible injustices committed.

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