Should You Compensate Slave Owners?


The history of slavery and its devastating aftermath is too complex for a simple blog post, but I wish to draw your attention to how slave owners were compensated when slaves gained their freedom.

And whereas, towards compensating the Persons at present entitled to the Services of the Slaves to be manumitted and set free by virtue of this Act for the Loss of such Services, His Majesty's most dutiful and loyal Subjects the Commons of Great Britain and Ireland in Parliament assembled have resolved to give and grant to His Majesty the Sum of Twenty Millions Pounds Sterling
Slavery Abolition Act 1833

The British Government compensated slave owners between £10 and £20 per slave. Around £1,000 to £2,000 in today's money.

By contrast, when slavery was abolished in the USA, in 1860s, slave owners got nothing. (Well, OK, some of them got something. History is complicated.)

I'm happy to argue that slavery is so morally abhorrent that compensation shouldn't be provided to slave-owners. But it is impossible to argue that such a policy wouldn't cause massive turmoil - both economic and emotional.

If you've been obeying the law and complying with the contemporary moral sentiment, to suddenly be informed that your conduct is unacceptable and you are being retroactively punished would be seen as unfair.

The Modern World

Some of my more contrary Facebook friends often post things like:

What do I get out of so-called "Gay Marriage", eh? Where's the benefit for me?

Life is a series of compromises. No one ever gets exactly what they want - but people are willing to engage in a value exchange if they feel it is reciprocal.

In the simplest example, most people don't want to clean toilets for a living - but they'll exchange their labour in return for money.

Citizens put up with taxes in exchange for a well functioning and peaceful society.

Politicians pass legislation that they don't agree with in order to receive concessions on laws they do support.

Every day we make hundreds of compromises - with friends over where to go for dinner, with bosses over which shifts we'll work, with lovers over who is doing the laundry - but we nearly always feel we get something in return.

What happens when a large section of society feels that they are constantly being asked to compromise and yet receive nothing in return?

Imagine that you're a straight, white, male, with a lower income / educational attainment. What have you received recently? What has happened other than the relentless stripping away of the one thing you've got going for you - your privilege?

Our society is changing rapidly and, to some, it can seem that what was acceptable behaviour yesterday is suddenly verboten.

One friend summed up his feelings on the modern world:

Society now asks people to confess to crimes they didn't know they were committing, and repent for the sins of their fathers. How is that fair?

Wading through various Internet posts shows that a section of society is absorbing a powerful message:

  • What I say is wrong.
  • What I eat is wrong.
  • What I watch on TV is wrong.
  • What I drink - and how much I drink - is wrong.
  • My sexuality is wrong.
  • My urges are wrong.
  • How I look is wrong.
  • The way I pray is wrong.

By contrast:

  • Gays now get new rights (where are my new right?)
  • Women's sexuality is liberating (but mine is disgusting?)
  • Minorities get government programmes tailored to their needs (where's the programme for my needs?)
  • We must defer to these heathen religions (while ignoring my God?)
  • Billions must be given in foreign aid (and there's no money to spend on improving my life?)
  • Every restaurant has a gluten free / vegetarian / halal option now (apparently it's unacceptable for my dietary choices to be on their menus?)

It all adds up to a scream of rage. We are making sacrifices and they are reaping the rewards.

It is the wholesale rejection of modern liberalism. It takes and takes and takes without ever giving anything back.

Or does it?

Part of the problem is that the benefits are often intangible. Equal marriage makes my friends happy - and gives me a chance to share in that happiness. Living in a country which respects differences is meant to make for a more pleasant community for everyone.

Living in a world free of slavery (mostly) makes me happy. It also lowers the risk that I might be sold into slavery.

Making life easier for people with disabilities means they can spend their energies contributing to society - and gives me insurance for when I become disabled.

Our multicultural, secular society (hopefully) means that people can live side-by-side knowing that their rights won't be trampled on. Or, as Terry Pratchett put it:

No enemies had ever taken Ankh-Morpork. Well, technically they had, quite often; the city welcomed free-spending barbarian invaders, but somehow the puzzled raiders always found, after a few days, that they didn’t own their own horses anymore, and within a couple of months they were just another minority group with its own graffiti and food shops.
Terry Pratchett, Faust Eric

But there's nothing tangible about these benefits. And it is far too easy to see someone else getting a hand up as you being pushed down.

How To Compensate A Slave Owner

There's an obvious moral hazard involved in compensating slavers - they may enslave more people knowing that they will be rewarded.

Is there are similar hazard involved in compensating straight/white/male/Christian/cis/etc people? Even if there weren't, how would such compensation be formed?

How do you help people feel the benefits of a more equal, just, and inclusive society? At the moment, all they're seeing is the removal of their advantages for the benefit of others.

To be clear, I am not saying that I personally need any compensation. I like the world we're creating and I'm reaping the benefits - tangible and otherwise - of our new society.

But it is clear that a large section of society doesn't feel that way. One only needs to look at the yearly uproar over International Women's Day to see that (not all) men feel that women's gain is their loss.

I don't know what the answer is. I don't think we should slow down the pace of change. I don't think that education and awareness is enough. I don't think that more money is the answer.

If we are to bring about a better society - it needs to be seen to be better for all. We need to bring tangible benefits to all, or risk a collapse in the compromise which keeps society functioning.

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