The Meaning of Happiness

You Keep Using That Word, I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means,”

Inigo Montoya, Princess Bride

Some argue that Happiness, in the context of our Declaration of Independence, means material happiness (e.g., property.) Some argue for emotional happiness. Yet others would argue that the word means more (e.g., free assembly, free speech, free exercise of religion, etc.)

Declaration of Independence

Declaration Preamble, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, via Wikimedia Commons (cropped)  

All of us may be familiar with the following words, but let’s review them anyway:

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 among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,

–That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness

Today’s post contends that ‘Happiness’ means most of these possibilities. However, it means one more than the others. But we must not exclude any of these at our peril. Along the way, we’ll examine the words: Unalienable, Pursuit, Life, Liberty, and Consent, too.

Our sources are essays written by James R. Rogers and a commencement address given by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Rogers, in a series of essays for Law and Liberty, defines Happiness along with the other important words to renew our understanding of our obligations to this nation and our fellow citizens. Solzhenitsyn, in his Harvard University Commencement Address, praises our nation’s founding principles and decries our fall from them. Let us examine the aforementioned words.

Unalienable or Inalienable

In his essay, “What Americans Miss about the Declaration of Independence,” Rodgers states that the Declaration’s inalienable rights are pre-political rights that we receive from our Creator. Governments are instituted to protect these rights. In the United States of America, we have the privilege to have instituted our government as a representative republic.

The essence of our rights’ inalienability, Rogers maintains, is not that our rights can’t be taken away, they can, but that we cannot give them away. They are not ours to give, we have been given them by our Creator. Rogers offers the example,

…People cannot justly commit suicide because humans do not own themselves, rather God owns them. Because our lives belong to God, and so are his to dispose rather than ours, the right we have to life is “inalienable.” We cannot give away our lives.

Because of the principle of inalienability, any government that recognizes a “right to die” has become a despotism. If the right that was taken away was alienable, then the details of the transaction dictate whether the taking is just or unjust. However, when any inalienable right is taken away, that taking is always unjust. It does not matter whether it is an individual or a governmental body doing the taking, it is unjust.

Pursuit

Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr., in his essay, “The Lost Meaning of ‘The Pursuit of Happiness,’” The William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 21, No. 3 (Jul., 1964), pp. 325-327, said that, in colonial times, “pursuit” meant vocation, occupation, or practice, as in ‘pursuit of medicine,’ or ‘pursuit of law.’

Happiness

Rogers, in his essays, “Liberty, Licentiousness, and the Pursuit of Happiness” and “The Meaning of “The Pursuit of Happiness,” develops the meaning of happiness from 18th century sources.

Today, the unalienable right to the “pursuit of happiness” is understood as “a right to chase after whatever makes one subjectively happy.” This is mistaken. The Declaration’s claim is also misunderstood to mean only the right to pursue what makes you happy but not to obtain happiness. Digging deeper, the fifth and fourteenth amendments to the Constitution imply that happiness is merely a synonym for property. Though acquiring property necessary to life is part of the pursuit of happiness, it isn’t the whole story.

In the eighteenth century, the political use of happiness meant something more. The Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 says,

As the happiness of a people, and the good order and preservation of civil government, essentially depend upon piety, religion and morality; and as these cannot be generally diffused through a community, but by the institution of the public worship of God, and of public instructions in piety, religion and morality.

Additionally, Article 3 of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 says,

Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.

From these examples and, according to Rogers, many more of the period, “happiness” in the Declaration means “something more akin to eudemonia, meaning felicity or well-being broadly understood. Critically, it commonly included an ethical or religious dimension…This certainly includes a right to material things, but it goes beyond that to include humanity’s spiritual and moral condition.”

Since this right is inalienable, we do not have the right NOT to pursue happiness, that is, not to practice moral and spiritual well-being. Restating it again, we may not alienate ourselves from the objective moral order. Further, the Declaration says governments are established to protect this right and the others and can be replaced when they become destructive of those rights. The right to pursue happiness, understood correctly, is in direct opposition to progressivism, especially the libertarian streak within it.

Life

In his essay, “God Talk and Americans’ Belief in Inalienable Rights,” Rogers asks, “Why would anyone in his or her right mind give away the right to life, liberty, or the pursuit of happiness?” He points out that debate about assisted suicide and the “right to die” is the same as the debate about whether life is an alienable or inalienable right. As we have seen above, we are not our own, God owns us. So, disposing of one’s own or others’ lives infringes on God’s rights.

Further, Rogers explains,

So, too, we cannot become slaves to another because we are already, as it were, God’s slaves. The irony is that the more abased humanity is before God the greater the dignity humans must accord to each other; liberty, as well as life and the pursuit of happiness, are all the more protected because of rights humans don’t and can’t have over themselves. They are “unalienable.”

However, because we are no longer a religious people, our skepticism undermines our ability to affirm the inalienability of our right to life. This leaves us in a bad place. To this, Rogers asks,

What [are] the implications…if Americans as a people are today ill-suited for the Declaration’s argument, and what the implications are if the Declaration’s argument is ill-suited for America.

Liberty

In the same essay in which Rogers discusses inalienability, “What Americans Miss about the Declaration of Independence,” he examines modern and colonial attitudes toward liberty. He says,

In modern America we think laws necessarily restrict liberty. And they can and often do. But the colonists took the idea of “consent” seriously. A contract between two people restricts future actions once entered. But freely entering into a contract that binds future choices is the epitome of liberty.

Rogers thereby indicates that the Declaration limits individual autonomy with respect to liberty. However, the colonists viewed this binding as also establishing liberty. Rogers says, “Like individuals agreeing to be bound by the terms of a contract…legislation could instantiate their liberty rather than merely restrict it.”

In his essay, “Liberty, Licentiousness, and the Pursuit of Happiness,” Rogers notes of ‘Liberty,’

It simply cannot mean autonomy. [If liberty is inalienable, then its meaning] harkens to the old distinction between liberty and license…There can be no right to licentious behavior, and there cannot be any such right regardless of whether that behavior implicates other people or not.

Needless to say, such an affirmation flies in the face of most educated sentiment in the U.S. today. Indeed, much modern American opinion and, more pointedly, modern judicial opinion, makes it a point to reject precisely that conception of liberty.

Consent of the Governed

Rogers contends, in his essay, “Americans No Longer Believe in the “Consent of the Governed”,”

During the Founding era, the consent of one’s representatives were taken as equivalent of one’s own consent.

…Whether it can be defended philosophically, as a practical matter, most Americans have already jettisoned belief in the proposition. Americans now almost universally reject one of the most-fundamental claims in their Founding document. Something those early Americans believed in strongly enough to fight and die for. That’s a pretty big change.

…What does it mean for the country when most of its people no longer believe one of the Declaration’s fundamental commitments?

In the founding era, Rogers says, “Americans took seriously the idea of the “consent of the governed.”” They exercised this consent collectively through popular votes or through their elected representatives. This consent extended to both the creation of government through the Constitution and to specific policies through law at all governmental levels.

Before the War of Independence, as an example, taxes were considered gifts of the people through their representatives to the British government for just administration of the colonies. Rogers gives the following explanatory illustration,

…A modest tax without consent was objectionable; a high tax with consent was fine. The moral significance of this is difficult to understate if this consent is real: A government with extremely high taxes under the consent theory is no more objectionable than, say, a person having high car payments to pay because that person chose to buy an expensive car.

Turmoil after the war lead Madison and Hamilton to deliberate over the new U.S. Constitution’s power to quell the power of “faction” both at the state and national levels. That is, for example, how to prevent industrial interests from dominating agricultural interests, or for the executive branch to withstand the legislative branch’s greater power. And in each case, how both parties could formulate a compromise to which both would give consent.

These thoughts were captured in Federalist No. 10 and No. 51. The Federalist Papers were meant to convince the nation to affirm our new Republic. Though the Constitution was ratified, Rogers says this is the period when our ‘consent’ started to flag.

We’ve examined the progression from the founding to where we are now in previous posts. Unfortunately, we’ve let those who would overturn the original U.S. Constitution for something else prevail in government, industry, media, and academia. This, I think, is why we, as a nation, no longer give our consent willingly. We no longer agree on the foundation of governance, so how can we agree on decisions within it.

Solzhenitsyn’s Viewpoint

In his speech at the 1978 Harvard Commencement, titled “A World Split Apart,” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn assessed the world’s condition, both in the East and the West. His message was not well accepted. About America’s founding and the West’s decline, he said,

…Two hundred or even fifty years ago, it would have seemed quite impossible, in America, that an individual could be granted boundless freedom simply for the satisfaction of his instincts or whims. Subsequently, however, all such limitations were discarded everywhere in the West; a total liberation occurred from the moral heritage of Christian centuries with their great reserves of mercy and sacrifice. State systems were becoming increasingly and totally materialistic.

The West ended up by truly enforcing human rights, sometimes even excessively, but man’s sense of responsibility to God and society grew dimmer and dimmer. In the past decades, the legalistically selfish aspect of Western approach and thinking has reached its final dimension and the world wound up in a harsh spiritual crisis and a political impasse.

And commenting on America’s media influence, he said,

Without any censorship, in the West fashionable trends of thought and ideas are carefully separated from those which are not fashionable; nothing is forbidden, but what is not fashionable will hardly ever find its way into periodicals or books or be heard in colleges. Legally your researchers are free, but they are conditioned by the fashion of the day.

…This gives birth to strong mass prejudices, blindness, which is most dangerous in our dynamic era. There is, for instance, a self-deluding interpretation of the contemporary world situation. It works as a sort of petrified armor around people’s minds. Human voices from 17 countries of Eastern Europe and Eastern Asia cannot pierce it. It will only be broken by the pitiless crowbar of events.

This assessment still pertains to our own situation, even thirty years after the fall of the USSR.

Conclusion

So, what new insights do we gain about our Declaration of Independence? I, for one, never appreciated the depth of it. As Rogers said,

Liberty, as well as life and the pursuit of happiness, are all the more protected because of rights humans don’t and can’t have over themselves. They are “unalienable” [because they are God given.]

We also have to consider that the Declaration, viewed as a contract, is binding on a people who freely affirm the Creator and we no longer do. In fact, this is the very root of our divide in this country. The Progressives and their coreligionists worship Man. Those who adhere to the Declaration and the Constitution, understood in their original meaning, affirm God, the Creator.

What the 2020 Election is All About: Preserving the American Way of Life, October 13, 2020, YouTube, Claremont Institute

Palliative Liberalism or Economic Nationalism

Daniel McCarthy, writing in First Things, describes our current pollical and economic troubles in the article “A New Conservative Agenda, A Governing Philosophy for the twenty First Century.” He contends that our bipartisan credentialed class’s plan is to ensure its own privileges while placating the service class with divisive identity politics.

For those who are no longer productive, the elite offer “palliative liberalism;” a package of economic measures that stops just “short of restoring inherent dignity and power to work.” The elite class’s economic and cultural interests are “well-served by a completely atomized America, one in which states have not seceded, but individuals have.”

By the end of the Cold War in the early nineties, America’s rationale for a global economic order evaporated. Instead of promoting American workers’ economic interests, the leaders of both parties dedicated themselves to spreading ‘democracy’ across the world. Instead of recognizing “post–Cold War China as a rising rival, America’s elites saw the remaining communist superpower as a land of opportunity for themselves.”

In his article, McCarthy defines America’s political-economic problem, how the nation got into this situation, the elite’s abdication of their responsibilities to the rest of the nation, and, finally, how economic nationalism can revitalize the nation’s families through reoriented trade and immigration policies.

America’s political-economic problem stems from our leaders’ refusal to change how they operate under new economic and political circumstances since they stand to benefit while the rest of the country suffers increasing loss. Quoting McCarthy,

…The class compact that came out of the Great Depression and World War II stabilized many of the social tensions dating back to the very beginnings of industrialization. It has broken down. The welfare state is heading toward bankruptcy. Americans are increasingly working as contractors rather than salaried employees, with fewer benefits and less security. Industrial jobs are vanishing.

A family wage, lifelong work, retirement guarantees, and brighter prospects for one’s children and grandchildren are not part of the bargain anymore. Economic growth is concentrated in cities and college towns, leaving everyplace else to wither. If the country continues on its present course, all of this will get worse.

…The American economy has changed in ways that require a new choice about the kind of country we are… Up to now, the choice has been made by default. Leaders in both parties, in corporate America and in the academy and media, have assumed that what worked twenty or thirty years ago will continue to work today. [All that is needed is fine tuning.]

He goes on to detail how America’s successful class compact, struck after World War II, became strained in the seventies. Through conservatives’ initiative during the nineteen seventies and eighties, the nation’s economy was reinvigorated. This was done partly to contain the Soviet Union. When the Soviet Union collapsed in the early nineties, our leaders did not reconsider their globalist agenda but went on to make the world safe for ‘democracy’ through color revolutions. All the while, the elite were making American workers unneeded by offshoring their jobs to China (and other Greater Asian countries) in the name of economic efficiency. McCarthy says,

But the America of the twentieth century was a country in several ways profoundly different from the one we inhabit today. It had strong community ties supplied by religious and ethnic groups. It had a powerful private-sector labor movement. Its economy was localized, not globalized, where an industry was located mattered. America exported goods to the world—enjoying a trade surplus as late as 1975—and manufacturing was at the heart of the economy… In …America, the welfare state was secondary. More important was the reigning political economy’s promise of a vigorous private sector that would provide prosperity and continuous flourishing for all.

By the late 1970s, the postwar economic order was under obvious strain. Stagflation was one symptom; lagging American competitiveness against the allies we had rebuilt was another. The liberalization of the economy that started with conservatives in Congress under President Carter and expanded under President Reagan was necessary to restore the postwar promise. And it worked, in part by unleashing technological innovation that would be more creative than destructive over the next decade.

The 1970s and ’80s also saw the creation or expansion of international institutions that were viewed at the time (if not always explicitly acknowledged) as instruments of Cold War policy. Everything from the acceptance of China into the American-led world economy to the construction of a European union was part of a strategy aimed at constraining the Soviet Union in the long run. Only “the long run” proved to be much shorter than anyone expected. By 1992 the strategic environment was totally transformed.

Yet America’s leaders did not think through the implications. Free trade agreements that made sense as a component of Cold War strategy took on a logic of their own, with plenty of support from academic economists who dreamed of nothing but global efficiency. Instead of viewing post–Cold War China as a rising rival, America’s elites saw the remaining communist superpower as a land of opportunity for themselves.

The original rationale for America to pursue a global economic order had vanished. Yet instead of once again focusing on the economic interests of America’s workers, the country’s leaders committed themselves to universal liberalism. The result was a political backlash, …[but] the backlash was undercut by a decade’s worth of technology-driven prosperity, and rather than conceding that the critics had a point, the consensus in Washington pushed ever further ahead. That led to a plunge in American industrial employment after 2000, as China was fully welcomed into the world economy.

America’s elite, nostalgic for the early, carefree days of globalization, has abandoned their responsibilities to the rest of America,

Members of the credentialed class like to depict Trump’s voters as “nostalgic” for an America that is never coming back. If anything, it is our leadership that is nostalgic—for the 1990s—and deep in denial. Globalization was relatively pain-free during the 1990s because going into that decade Americans did not know what would happen next. The class compact of the past defined the public’s outlook and expectations more than the unknown future.

Now the future without a class compact is clear to everyone, even if many in the leadership class are reluctant to describe it in frank terms. It means an America broken into three relatively immobile classes: a credentialed and knowledge-based elite, a large service class that prepares the first’s food and tends to its children (also the class of the urban Uber driver and suburban Amazon warehouse worker), and a vast economically unneeded population in what used to be the commercial and industrial heartland…

As a sop to those robbed of their means for living, the elite offers a process of “creative destruction” leading to an efficient allocation of labor and return on investment in line with the arc of history,

…The bipartisan elite’s policy program for the near future amounts to shoring up its own privileges with respect to intellectual property and bureaucratic know-how, while fragmenting and buying off the urban service class with identity politics. For the unproductives, the elite prescribes what might be called “palliative liberalism,” involving wage subsidies, tax credits, and other measures short of restoring inherent dignity and power to work.

Palliative liberalism is not the same thing as the old welfare liberalism. The welfare state of the twentieth century was, at least in America, meant to be only an adjunct to a productive private economy in which almost all could participate. Palliative liberalism, on the other hand, aims not to repair labor-capital relations but to euthanize, as humanely as possible, millions of economically unneeded and politically retrograde Americans.

The justice of this euthanasia is said to be found in the laws of nature and the arc of history. The only nature that the prescribers of palliative liberalism recognize is the natural order of economics, whereby creative destruction applies not only to firms but to families, nations, and individuals. For the good of all, the inefficient must give way to the more productive.

[They maintain that] only selfishness and ignorance can account for the resistance of privileged (or formerly privileged) working-class or middle-class Americans to this “natural” process. They, unlike the entrepreneurial worthies of Wall Street and Silicon Valley, are not deserving of their status. They don’t “create value” and should in effect trade places with the poor of the developing world. This is what being on the right side of history requires. The injustices of Christopher Columbus and Jim Crow will be repaid by the desolation of America’s “red” counties.

Rather than changing course, or even managing discontent, the credentialed class has pursued a divide and conquer strategy of “atomization.” McCarthy warns that this approach may lead to violent revolution if not corrected,

During the earlier class-war phase of the modern economy in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, religion moderated the harshness of the struggle, as did extended family and, to some degree, national sentiment. The rich felt obliged to be locally charitable, not just abstractly “philanthropic,” and civil society provided means for self-help.

The irony is that the success of the twentieth century’s grand bargain—the welfare state and the middle-class growth economy—weakened family and religion, providing individuals unprecedented freedoms that, with the collapse of the bargain, have turned into unprecedented loneliness. The relief that church and family once provided is now supplied by fentanyl—another low-priced consumer product from China.

…Palliative liberalism and the rest of the political program of today’s leadership class hold little promise of keeping the country together. Whatever else it tries to do; an elite has to manage discontent. The rise of socialism and nationalism in American politics shows that already the effort is failing. The best-case scenario for the liberal elite is daunting to contemplate.

Their interests, economic and cultural, are well-served by a completely atomized America, one in which states have not seceded, but individuals have. A heap of loose economic actors who have lost their cultural bearings allows itself to be managed benignly, if contemptibly, by the wealthy and educated. The more likely scenarios, however, involve upheaval in the name of socialism or something like military-imposed order. Look to Latin America for the past as preview.

McCarthy, instead, offers an honorable and effective program, a better way to reconcile the credentialed, service, and displaced classes,

…The most effective and honorable way out of the dilemma we face is to embrace something like nationalism as an economic program… Economic nationalism is not just about tariffs. It is less about “economic” than it is about “nationalism”—that is, it takes account of the different needs of different walks of life and regions of the country, serving the whole by serving its parts and drawing them together. …All of this is for the sake not just of prosperity, in raw dollar terms, but of a national economy that provides the basis for a healthy culture in which citizens and their families can flourish…

This program restores American production and export and employs smart trade practices to protect the American worker,

[The nationalist approach rejects] propaganda about the end of the export economy. World population is still growing, and growing wealthier, which means there are more people around the world increasingly capable of buying goods made in America. …Now [is] the time …to compete to the utmost, at once politically and economically, with our rivals, above all China.

That means driving bargains to open markets for our goods while permitting access to our markets—still the most desirable in the world—on terms favorable to our citizens in full, in their capacity as producers, not just as consumers. …We ought to minimize the loss of employment due to every factor not technologically inevitable, such as ill-conceived trade deals. Tariffs are not an end in themselves, of course: They are a defensive measure and a source of leverage.

McCarthy’s program also reforms immigration to support existing and new American families and enhance the elite’s patriotism,

…Immigration …[needs] reform that puts citizens first, with emphasis on supporting higher wages for workers. Less low-skill immigration puts upward pressure on wages. And what if there just aren’t enough American workers to fill all the jobs? That’s good, too, because other things being equal, it encourages larger family size.

…Shifting policy preference from low-skill immigration to high-skill immigration [provides not only] …more economic value per immigrant but also [puts] competitive pressure on the professional elite. The more the elite feels the same pressures as the working class—from technology and immigration—the more its attitude toward patriotism may improve.

Naturalization of high-skilled immigrants is preferable to the present H-1B visa program, which favors employers over native and immigrant workers alike by putting downward wage pressure on natives and making temporary immigrants effectively indentured to their employers.

Summing up his argument for economic nationalism, McCarthy says,

…The idea that economic nationalism is not compatible with free-market economics is absurd. …Its virtue is that it is good for labor and political stability as well. From growth, a contented middle class, and moderate political culture flow a strong country and stronger families and citizens. In the early decades of the twenty-first century, when nations and supranational institutions are in turmoil, those benefits are of existential significance.

…We need to accept the responsibilities of leadership… The way forward requires refocusing on the American citizen as the basic unit of the economy. This is the essence of a nationalist political economy, which we very much need if our country’s tradition of personal independence and limited government is to endure, a tradition in which government’s primary economic role is not to provide welfare but to safeguard the conditions that make productive work possible.

McCarthy’s thesis demands careful consideration. It rings true to the facts on the ground and explains, in stark terms, our current strife and our remaining choices. Though McCarthy doesn’t make explicit the ruling elite’s reasoning for such a heartless enterprise as “palliative liberalism,” we will see in subsequent posts that the reason is, as Solzhenitsyn quoted his countrymen in regard to Russia’s catastrophic experiment with ideology, “Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.” In keeping with this post’s theme, though not its conclusions, I offer a relevant clip from a contemporary allegory.

Independence Day (3/5) Movie CLIP – Nuke ‘Em (1996) , TW: Salty Language and Alien Violence, July 10, 2015, YouTube, Movieclips