The Case for Voluntary Reparations

Voluntary reparations should be supported by everyone regardless of their opinions about involuntary reparations.

As they do every year, the House of Representatives is currently considering HR 40, the “Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act.” If this commission is ever created, it should consider voluntary reparations as an easy first step.

Voluntary reparations should be supported by everyone regardless of their opinions about involuntary reparations. (For the record, I think former slaves should have been paid reparations after the Civil War, and black people who lived through and suffered under Jim Crow should be financially compensated today. I'm not sure how much they are owed or who should pay.)

What Are Voluntary Reparations?

For simplicity, let's assume reparations mean a cash payment to some group of beneficiaries. The beneficiary group could be all African-Americans, only descendants of slaves, people who were alive during Jim Crow, or some other subset. The reparations would be paid for by some subset of people separate from the beneficiary group. Most proposals call for involuntary reparations, meaning that if you are in the chosen group, you are compelled by law to pay.

In contrast, under a system of voluntary reparations, anybody could choose whether or not to fund the reparations payments. Coleman Hughes argued that he and the one-third of black Americans who do not support reparations shouldn't be forced into victimhood.If you choose to pay any amount, your money would be transferred to somebody in the beneficiary group. Your payment would be recorded. If a future law were passed compelling payment of reparations, you would be exempt from paying (at least up to the amount you already paid).

Similarly, if you were in the group of beneficiaries, you might choose to not receive reparations. (In testimony before Congress, author Coleman Hughes argued that he and the one-third of black Americans who do not support reparations should not be forced into victimhood. With the voluntary receipt of reparations, this would not be a problem.)

Voluntary Reparations Should Be Uncontroversial

Everybody should support voluntary reparations, no matter their opinion on involuntary reparations. The only people who would be affected by reparations would be those paying for or receiving them.

Payers and receivers might or might not support involuntary reparations. Let's consider four groups of people:

  1. those receiving reparations who support involuntary reparations;
  2. receiving but oppose involuntary reparations;
  3. paying and support;
  4. paying and oppose.

Let’s entertain a hypothetical policy where a system of voluntary reparations is enacted.

How might it affect each group?

  1. If you are in the receiving group and support involuntary reparations, there is no reason to oppose voluntary reparations. At worst, nobody will volunteer payment, and nothing will have changed. At best, everybody will volunteer to pay you and everybody else in the receiving group full reparations. With anything short of full volunteer payment, you can continue pushing for involuntary payment. Voluntary reparations in no way preclude involuntary reparations.
  2. You may oppose reparations either because you don't want to receive them or you don't think people should have to pay them. Under a system of voluntary reparations, paying and receiving are both optional.
  3. You may choose to pay whatever amount you think is right. The beneficiaries will receive some reparations. Even if full reparations are never achieved, your payment will still do some good. Again, voluntary reparations in no way preclude involuntary reparations.
  4. You don't have to pay. What do you care if other people choose to spend their own money on reparations?

The Voluntary Model Is Applicable to Some Other Government Spending Decisions

Voluntary reparations are somewhat analogous to the charitable contribution tax deduction. You would be free to donate to a charity and deduct the amount from your taxable income, thus reducing the amount you paid for all government programs. With voluntary reparations, you would be free to pay reparations and reduce the amount you had to pay for a specific government program, i.e., theoretical future involuntary reparations. Unlike the charitable tax deduction, voluntary reparations would decrease your tax liability by the same amount as your voluntary contribution if and only if involuntary reparations became law.

Some people already donate to organizations like the NAACP and the Southern Poverty Law Center, which do reparations-type work. Allowing contributions to private reparations-like organizations to generate a credit against future involuntary reparations payments could be a feasible adaptation of the charitable tax deduction.

The simple voluntary model is only applicable to cases where each marginal dollar is useful, even if the full ideal amount is never achieved.

The simple voluntary model is only applicable to cases where each marginal dollar is useful, even if the full ideal amount is never achieved. Direct transfers to people, like income-support and reparations payments, have this property. Contrast this with a government project like building a bridge. If the bridge costs at least $X to be built, all the money contributed will not be useful unless the full amount is achieved. Half a bridge is not half as useful as a full bridge. Half an income support check is half as useful as the full check.

For cases where the funding is only useful if the full amount is achieved, more sophisticated voluntary payments could still work. For example, Kickstarter funds private products by making voluntary payments conditional on achieving the full funding amount. If the funding threshold is not reached, no payments are made. An excludable (to avoid the free rider problem) bridge or football stadium could theoretically be funded by voluntary taxes along the lines of Kickstarter. People would vote with their dollars as to whether a government project is worth pursuing.

For now, let's start with the easy case of voluntary reparations.

Further Reading

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