In a Facebook post, a Sikh friend expressed glee about the prospects that Sikhs might soon be “the leader of either the United States [Nikki Haley] or Canada [Jagmeet Singh], or even both.” Of course, no one should have a problem with Sikhs being the leaders of either or both countries—provided they embrace ideas and values that are simpatico with foundational ideas and values of the countries they lead. (Embracing those ideals and values would be necessary in order to fulfill faithfully the required oath of office).[i] I took issue with my friend basing his opinions or emotions about leaders on anything other than the leaders’ beliefs and the content of the leaders’ characters. The ensuing conversation roamed to many interesting subjects but culminated in a discussion of whether the large differentials in economic success between Western countries (“the West”)[ii] and other countries was mostly a consequence of Westerners embracing better ideas than the ideas embraced by less successful countries. One of my friend’s responses was that to an unspecified (but presumably large, if not overwhelming) degree the differential in success was “built upon naked exploitation and not intellectual superiority.”
My friend’s claim raises many issues worth sorting out. Let’s give that a go.
AUTHOR’S NOTES: Exploitation, “the action or fact of treating someone unfairly in order to benefit from their work,” rears its ugly head in many and varied ways. In particular, exploitation is often claimed to be a key feature of colonization. (Colonization and conquest should not be confused in this context.)[iii] Because colonization involves bad things other than exploitation, exactly what role exploitation played in colonization usually gets glossed over and confused. That results in conclusions about colonization based on muddled reasoning.
Certainly, colonization by Westerners inflicted many atrocities[iv] and lesser intentional inflictions of bodily harm (“crimes”) on people who deserved to have been left alone. Those tragedies are damnable and surely more heinous than the economic exploitation associated with colonization. Because however, those crimes and tragedies are unambiguously and fundamentally wrong (as opposed to “unfair,” i.e., unkind, inconsiderate, or unreasonable), they are categorically different from exploitation. Unfairness, not criminality, is what distinguishes exploitation from regular commerce. As explained herein, distinguishing between crimes and unfairness makes a big difference in how justice might be achieved.
This post focuses on why distinguishing exploitation from crimes is important. Only by doing so can one see what exploitation is and is not, and the nature of the problems and possible solutions associated with exploitation. Another reason to distinguish between crimes and exploitation associated with colonialization is that crimes account for essentially none of the West’s relative success. This is because significant economic gains cannot be achieved by stealing from (who by definition do not have much of value to steal) or killing peasants. Economic gain can be achieved by exploiting peasants—something that cannot be achieved if the exploitable peasant is dead.)[v] Consequently, one must exclude consideration of heinous acts in order to test the validity of my friend’s claim.
The wording of my friend’s claim, that the differential in the economic success of the West was “built upon naked exploitation and not intellectual superiority,” might lead one to believe that I had claimed that the West’s relative success is attributable to an intellectual superiority of Westerners. I did not and would not make that claim. My claim was that it was the set of ideas that happened to take root in Northern Europe (the subset of the West that did most of the colonizing and prospered the most during and following colonization)[vi] during The Enlightenment that caused the relative success. Why those ideas took root and were developed and internalized in Northern Europe will forever remain a subject for speculation but will likely never be conclusively determined to be attributable to innate superior intelligence or acumen. Some evidence that such is not the case is that when the Romans arrived in Britain they had almost nothing good to say about the natives and described them as among the most barbarous natives they had ever encountered.[vii]
Colonization and exploitation need not go hand in hand, but I’m aware of no situation in which they didn’t. Colonization did bestow some benefits on the people of at least some colonies (some scholars claim that in some places colonization conferred more advantages than disadvantages).[viii] Even if there were a net benefit to the colonized, however, such “exchanges” were never voluntarily on the part of all involved. For a fair exchange to happen all significant parties to the transaction must agree to the deal. One may not absolve one’s self from unfairness by saying something like, “Yes, Akshat, we did require you to work in the field for 80 hours per week for your food, but we enabled your country to have a railroad and other modern marvels.” Most people would reject any argument that the exploitation of colonized people was fair because it eventually resulted in the betterment of the colonized people and their progeny. Concerning some colonies, no credible case of a net benefit would be possible. Even if colonization were a high-minded, well-intended enterprise to save the down and out, there is no merit in defending what turned out to be a tyrannical Quixotic enterprise.[ix] Colonization justly earned its near universal condemnation by modern people.
Because of the nearly universal opinion that colonization resulted in injustices, a natural desire to set things right arises in the hearts of good people. Given that all the perpetrators of colonial injustices are long dead, demands for reparations of some sort have become commonplace. Many rubs lie therein.
Justice cannot be achieved without a good understanding of all of the relevant and material issues involved. As explained above, crimes by colonizers and exploitation by colonizers are two separate topics. Nevertheless, because discussions of colonization almost always involve crimes and potential recompense for crimes, an understanding of crime and punishment is necessary to an understanding of what a fair recompense would be.
The public interest in achieving justice is served when a criminal is punished for his crime. To be just, however, the punishment must fit the crime. Too little or too much punishment is unjust.
Private interests are justly served when damages suffered by victims of crime are compensated. While a finding of criminal guilt may provide some solace to a crime victim’s family, a criminal punishment does not compensate the family for its losses. Justice is served if the family or other parties injured by a crime obtain fair compensation for losses whether or not the defendant is also punished criminally for the crime. For that reason, in addition to “paying the price” for the crime, to be just a thief must also return what was stolen.
Moreover, a perpetrator who is found not guilty beyond a reasonable doubt is not a finding that she did not commit the criminal act, i.e., “not guilty” does not equal “innocent.” If it is proven that a “not guilty” person more likely than not committed the act for which she was charged and that caused a plaintiff’s damages, justice is served if the private litigant is compensated for his resulting losses. Depending on the circumstances, awarding punitive damages (either to the plaintiffs or to the state) in a private lawsuit can justly serve the public’s interest in penalizing crimes.
In cases in which a criminal is convicted and punished by the state and also assessed punitive damages in a private action the total punishment will exceed what is just.
Determining today extent to which colonizers were punished for his crime or whether a second punishment was imposed and just multiple decades or centuries after all the witnesses have died, however, will mostly be impossible. A fair-minded person would be at least curious about whether this possibility is far-fetched. In the greater scheme of things, however, perhaps it may be ignored because of the high likelihood that neither happened.
Figuring out the punishment amount, however, is a minor problem relative to others. Even if the proper punishment for long ago crimes could be figured out, the interests of the public can be served by punishing only the people who committed a crime. A new injustice would occur if innocent people were punished for the crimes of others. Inasmuch as all but a tiny percentage of the criminals who committed crimes during colonization are long dead, punishing anyone today for those crimes should be off the table. To do so would be vengeance, not justice.
On the other hand, justice could be served if someone inherited the ill-gotten gain of a colonial wrongdoer. Forcing the possessors of such ill-gotten gain to return the ill-gotten gain to the parties from whom it was taken would certainly be justified. But, of course, all of those people are dead too. Because of this problem, people have proposed other possible ways to make things right. Let’s sort out the issues involved with the most prevalent of those proposals in ensuing posts in this series.
[i] Stated differently, they would need not to embrace anything in Sikh ideology that is inconsistent with their country’s foundational ideas or values.
I am not familiar enough with Sikh ideology to know the extent to which Sikh values are different from American values. (Although this take on the “Mother Hen Story” is cause for great concern. Compare the Northern European version of the story. These takes are antithetical to each other.) On the other hand, I know essentially nothing about Jagmeet Singh, and not enough about Nikki Haley, but am aware of nothing she has said or done to raise any concern in this regard.
[ii] “Western World countries” is an imprecise term and may only crudely capture the distinction between countries my friend was drawing. For instance, he may have been referring to colonizers versus non-colonizers. As the precise definition is likely not important, hopefully “the West” will suffice.
[iii] The word “Colonization, the action or process of settling among and establishing control over the indigenous people of an area” as used herein is not intended to include “Conquest, the act or state of conquering or the state of being conquered.” For example, I would say that Britain colonized the thirteen states, but the U.S. conquered the native Indians. So the discussion here does not necessarily apply to the relationship between the U.S. and the Native Americans.
As unfair as conquest might be, one would be hard-pressed to find an acre of habitable land that had not been conquered multiple times by multiple invaders. As such, sorting how to make things right with respect to conquest is much more problematic than with respect to colonization—which is plenty hard. Moreover, conquest has little or nothing to do with colonization. Conquest is not the topic of this series of posts.
[iv] See “Deny the British empire’s crimes? No, we ignore them.” This is just a small example pertaining to one Western power, but because this post is not about the atrocities, multiple examples are not needed to confirm the point. By providing an example of British crimes, I am not suggesting that the Brits were the worst offenders. They weren’t. For example, see “French imperialism’s brutal colonial rule.”
[v] See “The West stole its wealth, right? Wrong.” Many of the examples of “stealing” mentioned in this article are not stealing (many of the examples could qualify as exploitation, which, as discussed herein, is very different). Nevertheless, the conclusion drawn is confirmed by this article.