Life, Liberty & the Protection of Happiness

Fifth grade civics was a while ago. So, as a starting point, here’s a refresher of some important wording from the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted

Most complaints against government concern ‘liberty’. Conservatives argue that high taxation infringes upon our liberty. Liberals argue that big business or gay marriage bans infringe our liberty. The connection between ‘liberty’ and the ‘pursuit of happiness’ is rarely talked about and, if it is, the two are frequently equated.

But what kind of liberty does the pursuit of happiness presuppose? Generally, people advance one of two notions.

The first conflates the ‘pursuit of happiness’ with ‘social liberty’. Our Founding Fathers recognized that ‘happiness’ is found in personal freedoms, it will assert. That’s why the separation of church and state, as well as the right-to-privacy is so important. If coming from the right, the conversation may lead into something like second amendment rights. If on the left, it might turn into claims that the right to pursue happiness supports the legalization of gay marriage or abortion.

The second takes a different emphasis, focusing on government involvement in our fiscal, rather than social, lives. A conservative might include a solemn reminder that government is not our breadwinner, describing the right to ‘pursue happiness’ as a basis for free-market economy. On the other hand, a liberal might take it as a ‘right’ for welfare programs or government subsidized businesses. These, in turn, conflate ‘pursuit of happiness’ with ideas of ‘economic liberty’.

Both discussions of how justice relates to happiness deserve discussion. But both approaches have a fundamental flaw: they assume the Congress of 1776 just decided to be redundant about that whole ‘liberty’ thing.

To be charitable, let’s assume they meant something unique. But what?

George Mason wrote in Virginia’s 1776 “Declaration of Rights”:

All men…have certain inherent rights… namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.

Mason relates ‘property’ to ‘life and liberty’, and in turn, separates it from ‘happiness’, which is connected to ‘safety’.  His correlation makes sense: emotions within ‘happiness’—contentment, satisfaction, joy—are negated by fear. Security is a prerequisite of happiness; safety gives us the space to ‘pursue happiness’.

In Federalist Paper No. 45, Madison is explicit about this connection:

But if the Union be essential to the security of the people of America against foreign danger…to their security against contentions and wars among the different States…to guard them against those violent and oppressive factions… if, in a word, the Union be essential to the happiness of the people of America

Be wary of projecting personal conceptions of ‘happiness’ onto government. The government does not offer happiness—it doesn’t even pretend to know what happiness is. But tonight we won’t have to worry about foreign enemies breaking down the door or another state’s militia invading our state. Peace balanced with liberty affords us the space to pursue whatever we think will give us happiness, be it social or economic. The right to pursue happiness is not an answer. It gives us space to ask the question.