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Development for Some, Disaster for Others: The Case for Reparations


Matthew Robinson (@econ_robinson) is an interdisciplinary PhD student in economics at the University of Missouri - Kansas City.

This post is part of a symposium on Reconsidering ReparationsRead the rest of the posts here.


At the 27th United Nations Climate Change conference, the issue of reparations was brought front and center by nations of the Global South. Northern nations, they argued, have contributed vastly more than their fair share of carbon emissions and should compensate nations that are negatively impacted by the climate crisis. After rounds of difficult negotiations, the representatives agreed to set-up a “loss and damage” fund to provide financial assistance to vulnerable nations. Although this fund is a pittance compared to the damages incurred by developing nations, it is a step in the right direction, as well as a victory for the Indigenous communities and activists who have long pressured policymakers to pursue reparations. It is also overdue recognition that development for some can mean disaster for others—a simple yet often overlooked fact that forms of the central argument of Olúfemi O. Táíwò’s Reconsidering Reparations.

Táíwò defense of reparations, which provides an excellent entry point to the subject, takes a step back from legislative details and forensic economics to consider the nature of accumulated wealth in our world. These accumulations, he shows, are not (or at least not solely) the product of gumption, a disciplined work ethic, or luck. Instead, they are the culmination of chattel slavery, colonialism, and generations of unequal trade relations. Once we appreciate this history, Táíwò hopes, we will come to recognize that only well-designed reparations programs can adequately address contemporary inequalities.

Central in this analysis is the idea of inertia. It is not only foolish, but actively harmful, for us to ignore the inertia of historical international events and institutions when we discuss reparations. This is a useful message for economists, particularly of the mainstream bent, to hear. Without significant changes in the social provisioning processes, wealth and advantage, along with poverty and disadvantage, will continue to accumulate. No marginal change in a tax code or behavioral nudge will induce the radical change that is necessary for those accumulations to reverse course. For hundreds of years, global capitalist development has been fueled by the exploitation of land and labor. Public policy and legislation in the Global North were not used to create a level playing field on which utility-maximizing individuals and profit-maximizing firms could compete in a growing global economy; it was used to facilitate exploitation and the accumulation of profit among the powerful. Whenever new opportunities for exploitation presented themselves or the Global North lost at their own game, the rules were changed. The outcome was assured, and the rules were massaged to expediate the process. In response, Táíwò argues that we must do more than merely compensate injured parties through direct payments—we must be guided by a “worldmaking” philosophy, one that seeks to build a just world on a global scale.

This approach to reparations is distinctive in two respects: its international scope and its institutional focus. In terms of scope, Táíwò astutely illustrates reparations as an international project. Climate reparations, colonial reparations, and reparations for the descendants of chattel slaves are each large, complex projects, individually worthy of serious attention, but they stem from a common cause: global capitalism. Therefore, a solution must be global in nature. Táíwò affirms his support for each of these endeavors but reminds the reader that they should be complementary, not conflicting.

Táíwò’s “worldmaking” also calls attention to the importance of institutions. For nearly a century, heterodox political economists in the (appropriately named) institutionalist tradition have done the same. Among economists, institutions reference the ever-changing norms and behaviors of the social provisioning processes. Early institutional economists were the first to consider how those norms shaped, and were shaped by, the law. Institutions, like the law, build upon themselves and each other. There’s an inertia to them. Unimpeded, that inertia will grow and compound existing dynamics. Those dynamics can only be changed with purposeful intervention. While policy interventions, like direct payments, are necessary, they are also insufficient to bring about the radical change that is needed. Scholars and policymakers must look beyond the letter of legislation and entries on balance sheets when they consider how they may influence institutions, our contemporary societal norms.

Several such contemporary norms that Táíwò examines are related to the material and non-material distribution of resources. I especially appreciate the attention to the distribution of opportunity; who has the right to the opportunity to live a fulfilling life and who should have picked better parents? Whose children have the right to attend “good schools” and whose children will have to rely on torn textbooks and grit? The distribution of these resources and their accompanying opportunities are divided along spatial, racial, and class lines (nevermind the overlap and interaction of these factors). That’s just the way we do things. That’s the way we will continue to do things because that’s the way we always have. Marginal adjustments to the property taxes or district lines will not eliminate such disparities. A more radical approach to institutional reform is needed.

This is why I think Reconsidering Reparations deserves a place on the bookshelf of those of us interested in law and political economy. Táíwò doesn’t appeal to improved markets as a solution for historic and contemporary injustices. To be sure, markets will have their place, but only so far as they advance the objectives set by policymakers, and only if the economic and legal structures of markets are reformed to work in service of reparations recipients. I’d also recommend this book to those (like myself) who work in the public money tradition. We reject the neutrality of money and economic policy and believe that economic research and policy should be directed at improving human dignity. However, we often aren’t as ambitious in our aspirations as philosophers like Táíwò are. For those of us ensconced in the details of the what and the how, it’s important to occasionally pause and reorient ourselves with a discussion of why. Táíwò’s focus on worldmaking widens the scope of what reparations programs can and should be.

Perhaps the most inspiring feature of Táíwò’s book is its willingness to chart its own course without letting itself be weighed down by skeptics or beholden to existing frameworks. In justifying this approach, Táíwò recalls Toni Morrison’s thoughts on racism: that is designed to keep us from doing our work. Or, in his words, it “keeps you answering other people’s questions.” Heterodox economists and those situated in the LPE tradition should heed this warning. Arguing for reparations and radical reform on the old ideological grounds of neoclassical economics and Chicago School law and economics will result in failure. These frameworks have been proven false and antithetical to the promotion of human dignity. Books like Reconsidering Reparations ask the reader to set aside those old ways and consider how economists and legal scholars of the public money and LPE approaches, respectively, can participate in the worldmaking process that Táíwò outlines. Read it, reflect, and then find your place in doing the work.