Social justice rent-seeking: Labour Conference edition

Shadow Women and Equalities Secretary Dawn Butler has used the Labour Party conference to renew her call for British banks and businesses to pay ‘massive’ reparations for slavery.

The money should be used, she explains, to support the work of the ‘Emancipation Educational Trust’ launched by Labour in October last year. This trust would use education to encourage ‘a deeper understanding of British history’, especially empire and colonialism, with the aim of telling a new national story that would help stem the rise of the far right.

Butler quotes Glasgow University’s decision to make available £20m in reparations to atone for its historic connection to slavery. (Though this money is for scholarships and grants, not Labour’s education initiative.) She asserts that ‘other banks and businesses must follow’. Labour, she says, will encourage this process via ‘consultation hubs’ in Liverpool, Bristol, Glasgow and London. It is Butler’s view that this is especially urgent at present because ‘for the first time in our country’s history we have a Prime Minister who the far right regard as their leader’.

A few days ago, Martin Wolf of the Financial Times wrote of his concerns with rent-seeking in capitalism, and its corrosive effects on liberal democracy. Rent-seeking is any behaviour that involves seeking to increase an actor’s share of existing wealth without creating new wealth. Rent-seeking tactics include using a dominant market position to control prices or prevent new entrants to the market, or converting economic to political power in order to shape public policy in line with business interests.

We can draw a parallel here with Butler’s proposal, which is in effect a form of social justice rent-seeking. She wishes to use political power (the Labour Party) to convert an increasingly dominant ideology (critical race and post-colonial theories) into a share of existing wealth. Butler is full of conviction as she argues for the vital role her trust will play in combating the far right. But there is some slippage between ‘reparations’ – a satisfyingly just-sounding idea considering the horrific history of slavery – and the question ‘to whom should reparations be paid?’. After all, the victims of slavery are long dead. Which of their descendants should benefit?

By way of parallel, consider who benefits from Amazon, and how. The general population enjoys the convenience of one-day delivery via Amazon Prime, while Bezos and his shareholders reap the rewards of Amazon’s hegemonic market position, manipulating the company’s tax obligations and hammering salaries and employee productivity in grim distribution centres. In much the same way, Butler’s social rent-seeking proposes to provide, as a general social good, more people who share her values and view of history. Meanwhile, the Trust she has founded will benefit directly from reparation payments, which will presumably fund well-remunerated positions dedicated to perpetuating the worldview that justifies the next round of fundraising.

This article was first published in Unherd

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