If the development of free societies, grounded in principles of liberty, equality, and the rule of law, is the crowning glory of the western world, then the modern history of western oppression is its bitter and enduring shame. Two basic facts of this history stand out. First, modern liberal theory – as it developed roughly from Locke
– as well as the institutions and cultures it produced, emerged alongside the manifest and systematic exploitation and persecution of many kinds of peoples. The enslavements of African and Caribbean people are the most horrific examples. But the scope of this oppression has been vast: women, Native Americans, Indians, Latin Americans, Asian, the Roma, Jews, the disabled, the poor, gay and bisexual people, the gender non-conforming – all these people have endured centuries of explicit, often violent harassment and discrimination in the west.
Second, this historical oppression gave rise to entrenched patterns of inequality that persist today, and which involve a variety of interlocking forces: social, political, punitive, educational, and economic. Consider only the last as it connects to race inequalities in America. The overall wealth gap in the United States between the top quintile and everyone else has been growing since the Great Depression
. And the gap between whites and people of color has been widening even faster. According to a major 2017 report from the Institute for Policy Studies, median black and Latino households witnessed 75% and 50% declines in wealth (respectively) between 1983-2013, to sit at a measly $2000. Meanwhile, the median wealth of white households at the end of the same period was $116,800.1
Nor does recent evidence suggest a change in these trends. On the contrary, by the end of 2020, white households are projected to own 86 times more wealth than black households, and 68 times more than Latino households. And by 2053, black households are projected to hit $0, with Latino households following suit two decades later.2
A commonplace defense against these two basic facts of western history, especially among right-libertarians, is to claim that this history and its present-day ramifications are essentially the product of gross and compounding errors in the practice of liberal theory, not in its principle. Unsurprisingly, those who believe this often also reject any suggestion of reparation for the past harms of western oppression.
To be sure, these people are usually quick to say that present day inequities are unfortunate. These inequities may even threaten overall social stability. Correspondingly, considerations of both benevolence and utility require those of us with means to find ways to help those on the losing side of this history.
Nevertheless, according to those who think this way, reparation is tantamount to unjust redistribution. It would require that those who aren’t personally responsible for these past harms or the present-day patterns that these harms contributed to, have their property and liberty infringed upon in ways that the foundational principles of liberalism cannot justify, and indeed condemn.
In this essay, I argue against this way of understanding liberal theory. At least, for those of us who consider Adam Smith a foundational source and guide to liberal theory, as I do, this kind of response to the facts of western oppression must be judged facile. Although Smith’s theory of liberty prima facie tells against reparations for western oppression, serious engagement with Smith’s theories of law and justice suggests that there is space for the claim. To be clear, I don’t pretend to make a conclusive case for thinking that Smith’s theory supports a call for reparations. I’m content to convince you that it might.