A federal judge has dismissed a class action seeking reparations for slavery from a number of US corporations. Lawsuits seeking reparations from corporations that supposedly benefited from old wrongs - the Holocaust, Japanese internment, World War II POWs, and slavery - have become very popular. And why not? As Kurt Vonnegut once wrote:
"In every big transaction, ... there is a magic moment during which a man has surrendered a treasure, and during which the man who is due to receive it has not yet done so. An alert lawyer will make that moment his own, possessing the treasure for a magic microsecond, taking a little of it, passing it on. If the man who is to receive the treasure is unused to wealth, has an inferiority complex and shapeless feelings of guilt, as most people do, the lawyer can often take as much as half the bundle, and still receive the recipient's blubbering thanks."
Lawyers, experts, consultants, and activists all stand to make a bundle out of such suits. Query, however, why we as a society should encourage it?
Punish the wrongdoers, you say? Sorry, but the corporation's legal personhood is a mere legal fiction. A corporation is not a moral actor. Edward, First Baron Thurlow, put it best: "Did you ever expect a corporation to have a conscience, when it has no soul to be damned, and nobody to be kicked?" The corporation is simply a nexus of contracts between factors of production. As such, there is no moral basis for applying retributive justice to a corporation - there is nothing there to be punished.
So who do we punish when we force the corporation to pay reparations? Since the payment comes out of the corporation's treasury, it reduces the value of the residual claim on the corporation's assets and earnings. In other words, the shareholders pay. Not the directors and officers who actually committed the alleged wrongdoing (who in most of these cases are long dead anyway), but modern shareholders who did nothing wrong. Retributive justice is legitimate only where the actor to be punished has committed acts to which moral blameworthiness can be assigned. Even if you assume the corporation is still benefiting from alleged wrongdoing that happened decades or even centuries ago, which seems implausible, the modern shareholders are mere holders in due course. It is therefore difficult to see a moral basis punishing them. They have done nothing for which they are blameworthy.
As always in corporate accountability, both efficiency and morality require that punishment be directed solely at those who actually commit wrongdoing. In this context, it would be the directors, officers, or controlling shareholders who actually enslaved people. Since they're long dead, there is nobody left who properly can be punished.
Update: CE Petit writes:
Two additional pieces of irony reinforce his conclusion, whether it's corporations or governments that are the payors.
My ancestors weren't even in this country until this century. Further, going back about 350 years in the gene pool, none of them had anything to do with slavery or the slave trade over in the Old World, either. Thus, if the value of my shares in, say, JP Morgan Chase (neither implying nor stating that I do or do not own such shares) is harmed by forcing the corporation to pay "reparations," I have been harmed twice: Once by the mere fact that I am a current shareholder whose "profit" from 150-year-old conduct is so attenuated by time that it cannot reasonably be attributed to me (as the Perfesser noted), and again because it was legally impossible for me or my ancestors to have any responsibility for slavery. (None of this nonsense about how the Old World bears responsibility for allowing slavery to continue, because that assumes that individual citizens in the Old World had any influence on policy—in other words, it assumes that the forms of government common now were in use at all then.)
Let's pretend for the moment that everything occurred last year, so that time is not an issue. Don't kid yourself about the potential consequences of reparations: successful blackmail would depress the market of all potentially targetted firms. If JP Morgan Chase pays, Citicorp stock will drop to discount possible extortion. So, if I very carefully made sure that my investments were in firms that did not have an obvious connection, the overall drop in market value (particularly if, say, I had invested in exchange-based futures or options) would "tax" me for the blackmail.He gets it.