When the Founders spoke of liberty, they meant that each of us has a right to plan and live his own life, as he thinks best, to pursue happiness in his own way, by his own lights, provided that in doing so he respect the equal rights of others to do the same. That basic idea is captured nowhere more clearly than in Thomas Jefferson’s magnificently simple phrase, “the pursuit of happiness.” Jefferson wrote that all men are created equal. He then immediately defined that equality by listing our rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
That right “to pursue happiness,” which is nothing less than the foundation of individual liberty, is key to understanding the Declaration’s basic principle — and our modern problem. Happiness, after all, is an individual, subjective notion. What makes you happy is not necessarily what makes me happy. You like vanilla; I like chocolate. That’s what makes life interesting. It would be a dull world if our tastes were all the same. In a free society, we have a right to practice whatever religion, pursue whatever job, and buy whatever product we wish, as long as we respect the rights of others in the process.
Yet the more we ask government to do for us, the more we undermine that vision. Every time government creates a new program “for our own good,” it forces us all to a common vision of the good. Take Social Security. Do you want to retire at 55? Sorry, too early. We’ve decided that you can retire at 62, but at a reduced rate.
Do you want the government to pay for your child’s education? Here’s the school you have to use and the curriculum your child must study? No thanks, you say, you’ll send your child to a private school instead, where you have a choice of programs? You’ll still have to pay for the public system.
You say you’re dying of cancer, but you’ve heard of a new drug that offers hope? Sorry, it takes on average 12 to 15 years for the Food and Drug Administration to approve a new drug for sale. We wouldn’t want you to take a chance on its being unsafe or inefficacious.
And speaking of health care, government today restricts our medical choices in countless ways, direct and indirect, which has led many to call for a Canadian style, single‐payer system. In education, at least, we can opt out of the public system, even if we still have to pay for it. In Canada, there is no opting out of the government health care system, except by going to America. It’s illegal to pay a doctor for more than the system offers. Get in line.
In these and countless other ways, in the name of helping us, government throws us all in a common pot and decides for us. We “pursue happiness” not as individuals but collectively — through government. We’ve turned Jefferson’s order on its head. Is it any wonder that so many of us are “unhappy” with the programs we get, with the choices government makes for us? Imagine if government chose our national religious program. When government chooses everything, individuals choose nothing. Look at North Korea for the extreme example of that.
It was not for nothing that Jefferson put liberty first, limited government second, as a means to liberty. What the Founders envisioned was a world in which individuals pursued happiness as individuals or as members of private, voluntary associations — families, businesses, churches, charities, and the like. That world of private individuals and associations — the civil society that Tocqueville spoke of — was where most of life was meant to be lived, with government limited primarily to securing the rights we have or we create in that world.
As we celebrate our independence today, let’s keep in mind that we’re celebrating our independence from overweening government — British or American.