Reparation and the Pursuit of Happiness

My previous blog post advocating reparation for Native Americans, African Americans, and women for past oppression drew a variety of positive and negative responses. Most who commented recognized my good intentions but were skeptical concerning whether reparation is politically or economically feasible. One comment questioned whether a different approach to reparation might compromise ongoing negotiations and legal actions by Native Americans. Others questioned whether those suffering from past oppression could be accurately identified and whether current generations should be held accountable for oppression by their ancestors. Questioners also asked whether oppressed peoples other than racial minorities and women should be compensated—or descendants of African Americans who immigrated after slavery. My proposal for reparation would avoid all of these potential difficulties.


My proposal is not to compensate those of current generations for the oppression suffered by their ancestors, but instead to compensate them for the suffering they currently are suffering as a consequence of past oppression. To the extent that the consequences of past suffering have been erased by subsequent generations, there is no need for further compensation. First, the ongoing negotiations and legal actions regarding broken treaties with Native Americans relate to specific instances of past exploitation rather than the current suffering of Native Americans. Second, there would be no need to identify specific victims of past oppression or to quantify the magnitude of their suffering. Reparation would be awarded to all people suffering from past oppression, not just minorities or women. Furthermore, no one should be required to conform to the dominant European male culture of the United States to qualify for reparation.


Regarding costs, we are already paying many of the costs of government programs that would be necessary for reparation and we could easily afford to pay for more. Both current and additional programs would simply need to be coordinated and implemented to more efficiently and effectively secure the fundamental rights of all. Finally, there is nothing unjust about asking those of current generations who have benefited most from past economic exploitation to pay most of the economic costs of reparation. It actually would not be a sacrifice for any of us to work together through the government to ensure equal political rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for everyone. Doing so would make our lives better.


The greatest benefit any government can bestow on those of current generations as reparation for oppression of past generations is to secure their God-given equal right to the pursuit of happiness. My proposal for reparation is based on this premise. In assessing the U.S. government’s responsibility, it’s important to understand what the Founders meant in their references to happiness. Those who signed the Declaration of Independence were heavily influenced by Western Philosophy, from the ancient Greeks and Romans to the Modern European philosophers of the 17th and 18th centuries. They would have been familiar with Aristotle's concept of happiness. His word for happiness, Eudaimonia, is variously interpreted as human flourishing, quality of life, and overall well-being. While experienced by individuals, Aristotle believed happiness is realized only within the context of positive relationships and is a natural consequence of virtuous living. For a contemporary definition of happiness, I like “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one's life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile” by Sonja Lyubomirsky. The pursuit of happiness is a quest for well-being, goodness, purpose, and meaning in life.


In my earlier post, “Liberty and Justice”, I related the government’s responsibility to ensure justice to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. The hierarchy of needs may be thought of alternatively as a “hierarchy of happiness.” The most basic human needs in life are air, water, food, clothing, shelter, health care, and the other physical necessities of life. Once those most urgent needs are met, human motivations progress to higher levels of meeting needs for safety and security. Only after a person feels a measure of physical security and safety is he or she able to focus on the positive relationships with others higher level essential for happiness. Admittedly, some people seem to be able to find happiness in the most destitute of physical circumstances while others find only miserable amid material abundance. For most people, however, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to find happiness until their basic needs are met.


Governments can ensure that the physical necessities are met for all and can ensure the personal safety and physical security of all. Governments can also ensure liberty and justice for all, which is necessary to participate fully in the impersonal economic and political relationships in complex societies. Governments cannot ensure the higher hierarchical levels of happiness associated with positive personal relationships with friends or family or a personal sense of purpose and meaning in life. Those are the responsibilities of individuals. No one actually needs anything more from their government to "pursue" happiness than governments can provide. We have had at least 50 years now of increasing economic affluence in the United States, with no greater national sense of physical, mental, or even economic well-being or happiness. More money is not the key to happiness, reparation, or escaping the malaise that has continued to plague the United States.


Unlike the U.S., many governments have limited capacities to secure the basic physical needs of all within their societies. However, all governments can meet the needs of all to the extent that they are met for any within their societies. Governments also can secure the physical safety and security of all, to the extent that it can do so for any. All governments can ensure that all people are treated with justice and all are free to participate fully in society. In the United States of America, the only limit to securing liberty, justice, and the pursuit of happiness for all is the unwillingness of the American people to consent to do so.


Many of those who oppose reparation, as well as other efforts to ensure equal rights for victims of past oppression, claim the primary function of government is to ensure their rights to “private property.” They believe the primary purpose for domestic law enforcement and national defense is to protect their property rights. James Madison used the phrase, “life, liberty, and property” in a Declaration of Colonial Rights, at the First Continental Congress. This phrase had been used earlier by the British philosopher, John Locke. Proponents of property rights also point to the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, which states that governments shall not deprive people of “life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” They claim that reparation would infringe on their property rights.


Contrary to claims otherwise, Thomas Jefferson used the words “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” in his first draft of the Declaration of Independence at the Second Continental Congress. Jefferson apparently deliberately chose to use “pursuit of happiness” rather than “property,” as he would have been fully aware of Madison’s earlier Declaration. Jefferson’s choice of words agreed with the Scottish philosopher, Lord Kames, who argued for “the pursuit of happiness,” not “property,” as a basic human right. Jefferson owned a well-used copy of Kames’ book defending this position. Jefferson’s draft was edited by a Committee of Five, who left his use of happiness unchanged, and was approved unanimously by Congress. Benjamin Franklin explained later that “property” and the right to property were creations of man, rather than endowments from God. The Founders knew the Doctrine of Discovery, by which England claimed property rights to land occupied by Native Americans, was not an endowment by God but a decree by a 15th-century European Pope.


The U.S. government has generally taken the position that if people are not being prevented from exercising their rights, their rights are effectively secured. Even this minimal level of commitment to equal rights has been routinely ignored, as attested to by the various street demonstrations against government failures mentioned in my previous posts. Regardless, the current position of government fails to recognize that a person’s rights have not been secured unless that person has not only the freedom but also the capacity or ability to exercise those rights.


The right to life is not secure unless people feel secure in their homes, safe walking the streets, aren’t afraid of being beaten or killed by the police, and know they can receive adequate health care when they need it. The right to liberty isn’t secure until people have the ability, as well as the right, to participate fully in society and the processes of governance—including the ability to cast their votes. The right to the pursuit of happiness is not secure unless people have the ability to secure adequate food, clothing, shelter, health care, education, and the other physical necessities of life and the ability to interact freely and justly with others in society.


Public resistance to the concept of “affirmative action” seems a rejection of the idea that the government has a responsibility to help people to gain the abilities or build their capacities to exercise their God-given, unalienable rights. Many American people seemed to believe that is somehow unfair or discriminatory for government to give assistance to people who have suffered from decades of discrimination in building their capacity to fully participate in society and to exercise their constitutional rights. Such lack of abilities is not the fault of the people, or the descendants of people, who have been subjected to decades or centuries of discrimination. This lack of ability represents the past failure of governments to ensure the basic human rights of all Americans. Those who have benefited from oppression have a responsibility to provide reparation for those failures.


The U.S. government has the responsibility, and ability, to provide reparation by ensuring that those suffering from past oppression are provided with the essential requisites for the individual pursuit of happiness. The government is capable of doing nothing more and is responsible to do nothing less. Beyond securing life, liberty, and the requisites of happiness, the individual well-being and quality of individual life is beyond the realm of government. This level of reparation is not beyond reason or political and economic feasibility. Most of the government policies needed to accomplish this type of reparation are already in place and many others have been proposed by presidential candidates during the 2020 political campaigns. All that is lacking is re-framing, supplementing, and repackaging the progressive movement of the past 15 to 20 years into a coherent movement for reparation, revival, and re-dedication.

John Ikerd