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July 1, 2009

The Pursuit of Happiness

By Mr. Thomas W. Washburne / Posted: June 30, 2006

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men 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 among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed...

Thomas W. Washburne
Mr. Thomas W. Washburne
These timeless lines from the Declaration of Independence, to which the signers pledged "our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor," has informed our nation since its birth. With parades, fireworks and other family traditions we commemorate Independence Day and celebrate that which defines us as Americans -- our life, our liberty and our pursuit of happiness.

Events in recent years reminded us that there are always threats to life and liberty; threats that have been present in one form or another throughout our nation's history. The 20th century alone confirms that tyranny and oppression in any form requires resistance, not appeasement. "The price of freedom," as Thomas Jefferson observed, "is eternal vigilance."

But what about the pursuit of happiness? Is this cherished right more secure than the others? Unfortunately, the answer is "no."

One modern threat to the pursuit of happiness can be illustrated by the actions of the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan and the acclaim it has received on the world stage. Bhutan, one of the poorest nations on earth, attempts to measure gross national happiness, as opposed to gross domestic product, as a measure of its well-being.

According to The New York Times, Bhutan's example has prompted a dialogue on how to effectively measure happiness. "Around the world," the Times reported last October, "a growing number of economists, social scientists, corporate leaders and bureaucrats are trying to develop measurements that take into account not just the flow of money but also access to health care, free time with family, conservation of natural resources and other noneconomic factors."

While much can be said of such an endeavor, the fact remains that before happiness can be measured it must be defined. To do that, you must posit a reference point for the definition. In other words, will happiness be defined from the perspective of government, from societal institutions (such as the churches or universities) or from the perspective of each individual?

Determining the reference point of happiness from an individual standpoint raises an obvious and significant challenge: People are not the same. What makes one person happy -- say a nice, juicy McDonald's Big Mac -- makes another person ill. Indeed, what makes one person fat seemingly has no effect on another.

This leads to an interesting phenomenon. At any given moment in a day, the events of that day, and the attitudes and predispositions of the people living in it, will lead to varying degrees of individual happiness. People will react differently to the very same circumstances. It is a simple fact of human nature.

Accordingly, if happiness is to be defined from the perspective of the individual, we must quickly conclude that discussing happiness in any collective sense makes no sense. Any one person can declare their happiness, but it has no real meaning for the whole.

So, if collective happiness cannot effectively be measured on an individual basis, then it must be done so from the perspective of the state or some other societal institution. Someone has to set a standard to measure what makes a person happy, be it access to health care or freedom to own firearms.

Individuals may, of course, determine for themselves that conformity to the teachings of the book of Ecclesiastes or the dictates of the speed limit lead to personal happiness. But what if a person does not choose these reference points? What value is there for the state or another institution to maintain policies that it thinks will result in my happiness if I do not agree? What if the state thinks I will be happier with fresh fruit than a Big Mac? I will still long for the Big Mac and resent the state. What if I want to own a firearm, but the government says my happiness should dictate otherwise? In a word, I will be unhappy. State-referenced happiness in the end is a form of collectivist, central planning of the most insidious kind.

According to the New York Times article, the goal of measuring happiness is "to return to a richer definition of the word happiness, more like what the signers of the Declaration of Independence had in mind when they included 'the pursuit of happiness' as an inalienable right equal to liberty and life itself." This is nonsense.

The "pursuit of happiness" is not the same as "happiness." Our Founders had a solid and profound understanding of what it was like to live under a government which, without their consent, thought it knew what was best for them. Rather than set forth what happiness meant for each individual, the Founders chose "the pursuit of happiness" as another expression of liberty and a desired end. In fact, one might even maintain that by so declaring the "pursuit" to be inalienable, they precluded the kind of state-manufactured definitions of happiness that the undemocratic Kingdom of Bhutan or, for that matter, the duly elected government of the United States would impose upon its citizens.

There are, by necessity, limits on an individual's pursuit of happiness. You can't steal your neighbor's car just because it makes you happy. We will, as a society, struggle to define the order and limits of personal choice. But we must not let this necessary task get in the way of the ultimate goal -- allowing for the free pursuit of happiness.

What is the pursuit of happiness? Simply put, the freedom to pursue your own goals, aspirations and ideals. Our Founders got it right. Government's role is to secure the "pursuit of happiness," not secure and force upon us happiness as the state defines it. The 4th of July is a perfect day to pursue happiness in the manner our Founders intended. Be glad that you are an American and can still do so.


Thomas W. Washburne is director of labor policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.

The Pursuit of Happiness

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