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The Right to Happiness

Revolutions are not unique. Before the fireworks begin bursting in showers of life over American skies, they fall sparkling over the crowds of Tahrir Square to commemorate another revolution.

Some countries have revolutions all the time. After a while revolution becomes a national sport. In banana republics, the overthrow of one dictator to make way for another gives everyone a day off from work. But these revolutions, no matter how they are cloaked in the familiar rhetoric of liberty, are nothing more than tyranny by other means.

What made the American Revolution unique was that its cause was not the mere transfer of power from one ruler to another, or one system to another, but a fundamental transformation of the nature of rule. Every revolution claims to be carried out in the name of the people, but it's never the people who end up running things.

The Declaration of Independence did more than talk about the rights of the people. It placed the people at the center of the nation and its government, not as an undifferentiated mass to be harnessed for whatever propaganda purposes they might be good for, but as individuals with hopes and dreams.

"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 is not merely some bland reference to a mass of people. There is no collective here, only the individual. The greater good of independence is not some system that will meet with the approval of the mass, but that will make it possible for the individual, each individual, to live a free life, not a life lived purely for the good of the mass, but for his own sake.

In a time when government mandates caloric consumption, cracks down on cold medicines and regulates every aspect of daily life for the greater good-- the declaration that started it all declares that the purpose of government is not social justice, a minimally obese population, universal tolerance or even equality. Equality is acknowledged as a fact, not as a goal. Instead the goal of government is to allow people to be happy.

That seems like a silly goal. What kind of great nation gets started by asserting that government exists to allow people to be happy? But look at the common condition of any tyranny. Take in that sense of 1984ness and its most obvious characteristic is unhappiness. People are persistently unhappy under a tyranny, whether they are rich or poor, because they are robbed of the necessary freedom to pursue individual happiness. They are not allowed to be individuals.

We live in an age of collective tyrannies under systems that seek to maximize the ideal welfare of the group. They care nothing for the happiness of the individual. And they care even less for the notion that the individual has a right to achieve that happiness by pursuing it on its own terms, rather than through their socially-approved and market-tested form of happiness.

The Declaration of Independence lays out the conundrum that governments exist to allow individuals to pursue their own forms of happiness. A government that makes it possible for individuals to do that cannot be a tyranny. And conversely a government that makes it impossible is a tyranny.

Modern revolutions are solution-based. So are modern governments. Redistribute the wealth. Power to the workers. Put X in charge. Strengthen Laws Y through Z. Impose your will on everyone else. And there is the Declaration of Independence, old and worn, offering up an idea as fragile as a butterfly, that government does not exist to impose solutions, but to protect the individual's pursuit of happiness.

What is it that threatens the individual pursuit of happiness? Government. The proper government that the Declaration of Independence gives weight to is one that protects the people from government' other governments as well as their own government.It protects from them from being regarded as a mass, a great porridge of people to be poured into the proper molds. It protects them from being a people, an undifferentiated mass reduced to a mathematical average of allotted happiness based on the latest trends in sociological happiness research. It protects their individuality.

The pursuit of happiness is not necessarily wise. It is often foolish. One man finds happiness in overeating and yet he lives in a society where his pursuit of gorging on giant sodas and salty snacks is protected from all the fidgeting experts eager to rush in and begin prodding him into good health. Another man finds happiness in inventing airplanes and is free to essay flight despite all the bearded men and women wearing fake Indian jewelery and smelling of patchouli who want him to write up an environmental impact statement.

Happiness is individual and individuals are eccentric. Their pursuits of happiness will have both good and bad in it. Individuality is the ultimate diversity and there is no substitute for it if you want a society that breaks through barriers, rather than wrestling in the streets over the fortieth revolution that will finally convince everyone that the right way to live is under Osceopeology. (It won't.)

The Declaration of Independence was not only a national statement, but an individual statement as well. It envisioned a government fit for individuals, rather than massive masses. A government that would free individuals to pursue their own goods, rather than enslaving them to the greater good that is intellectually fashionable at any given moment.

And that is what makes it more relevant than ever. The Redcoats are not about to march into Boston, but the Regulators are. The rising power of government has transformed its laws and systems into a means for the elites to impose their will on the whole country, to stamp out their private pursuits of happiness for collective ends.

The nanny state, like every good nanny, is suspicious of private and unsupervised pursuits of happiness. It accepts equality not as a fact, but as a goal, whose achievement requires the absolute and total regulation of all private matters and activities. It has no truck with liberty because it understands, rightly, that liberty imposes limitations on its powers of control.

The Fourth is not only a celebration of nationhood, but of a nation of individuals. It is as much a
celebration of private freedoms as of public ones. It is a celebration of a nation of individuals capable of voluntarily pursuing their happiness by securing a nation, rather than a nation of slaves waiting to be given their marching orders by another government agency.

An unalienable right can be restricted or taken away, but it never disappears. It never goes away because it origin source in a Divine Power transcends governments and ideologies. It is not bound by the fashions of the day. It is a permanent and absolute statement that the dignity of the individual is not distributed with a soup ladle in the shelter of the state, but comes from the individual. It is not the people who need governments. It is governments who need people.

As we celebrate the Fourth in an America where the pursuit of individual happiness has been forgotten and repressed, mark the occasion by exercising your right to the pursuit of your happiness.


  1. Mr. Greenfield,

    I've both enjoyed and learned so much from so many of your - brilliant, which is to say, insightful - posts that I'm hesitant to be critical. Nonetheless, since I take you for a serious man, less in the Coen Brothers' sense and more in Aristotle's, and thus deserving of being taken seriously, I offer the following quick thoughts.

    I note that the Declaration speaks of the right of each man to pursue, freely, happiness. But it doesn't say either what constitutes happiness or that what happiness is is up to the each man to decide.

    Being persuaded by what people like Aristotle and such folk have had to say on the topic, I don't believe that it is up to the individual to decide what constitutes happiness.

    That doesn't mean that I don't accept that there are, say, gradations or varieties of happiness. I do.

    I also note that the Declaration says nothing about unhappiness. Do we have an unalienable right to pursue it? Or even to pursue it believing incorrectly that it is happiness?

    These questions point to a general, which is to say, I think, collective dimension to happiness.

    I am sure you are aware of the paradox of relating on the one hand the Declaration's insistence that we institute governments to secure our unalienable rights and then saying that government is the enemy. I'm comfortable with paradox. But I do hope that you explore this paradox in a future post with your characteristic wit and insight.

    I share you concern for - animosity towards - collectives, including the state, that override the good and happiness of individuals. The best statement I've run across on the proper ordering in this regard is again from Aristotle who, as I have come to understand him, holds not only that the good and happiness of the individual on the one hand and the good and happiness of the polis on the other are the same but also that you cannot speak of a polis being good and happy if it overrides and destroys the good and happiness of the individual. In consequence, the goodness and happiness of the collective or state is determined by the goodness and happiness of the individuals.

    This post, like many of yours, prompts many thoughts. But as it is late I have to say "enough".

    Thank you.

    Michael Lee Ross

  2. Daniel! Stunning!

    The fundamental interpretation of “American Independence” is only partly a reference to the declaration of independence from British rule and more importantly the claim that this country was formed to allow each individual to live uniquely individually. This creates synergy that builds up rather than decimates. It has been proven over many times that collectivism always destroys and is founded in childish envy.

    Happy Independence Day. Who knows how long we’ll be able to say this without weeping?



  3. Anonymous4/7/13

    Thanks, Daniel. I was expecting something thoughtful and inspiring and you delivered, as always.

    Happy Fourth.

  4. An excellent essay, Daniel, but I have one reservation:

    "An unalienable right can be restricted or taken away, but it never disappears. It never goes away because it origin source in a Divine Power transcends governments and ideologies."

    Unalienable individual rights do not derive from a "Divine Power," but from the nature of man. The Founders, including Jefferson, author of the Declaration, were largely Deists who believed God created everything and then stepped aside. That was the limit of their "cosmology" in the 18th century. Note that in the Declaration, the "Laws of Nature" are cited first before "Nature's God." Clearly, the reality-based epistemology and metaphysics of the Founders (certainly healthier than those of modern politicians) took precedence over the unseen and the unprovable. Thus, the subsequent phrase, concerning rights "endowed by their Creator," is a mere implication – say, rather, lip service – to the notion of God, but the more important, it is a nearly explicit implication that man's rights are derived from his nature as a being of volitional consciousness responsible for his own life, actions, and happiness. Finally, in the last part of the Declaration, reference is made to "a firm reliance on Divine Providence." Given the length of the American Revolution and the carnage it caused, I don’t think the Founders relied much on "Divine Providence." They had to rely on their own moral certainty and certitude.

    In any event, happy Fourth of July, Daniel.


  5. That was just what I needed to read after discovering the side aspects of the Common Core and presentations within the past month on Capitol Hill extoll the common good and the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights as the new goals of American education.

    This Independence Day we don't have to fight invading aliens but we do need a comparable rallying spirit against governments and international bureaucrats who want to rule. And pretend the Declaration of Independence is no longer valid.

    That the 21st century is about the primacy of the common good and education needs to break wide open any concept of the unitary self. (Yes, john a powell really did say that and his Regional Equity and Building One America work should be seen in that vein).

    This is an Independence Day when our colleges and universities and high schools have their marching orders from their governing groups that require instilling a personal and collective responsibility for the common good as a required learner outcome. To get that degree. To be a graduate.

    Attitudes. Values. Beliefs. Dispositions. When these become targeted and monitored for change by people empowered by government, we have ceased to be a free country.

    We are just unaware of the shift in status.

    Take it back.

  6. Tom M.4/7/13

    Ed says, "....man's rights are derived from his nature ..." The problem is that man's nature has no more a universal concept of right and wrong than the nature of any animal.

    That's where God comes in.

  7. Writer4/7/13

    "I am a real Christian – that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus Christ."
    --The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, p. 385.

    Jefferson also wrote in his autobiography:

    "it is a document in proof that I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus, very different from the Platonists, who call me infidel and themselves Christians and preachers of the gospel"
    Our Founders were anti-clerical, but not anti Christianity in what was debated to be its pure form.
    Washington said: "To the distinguished character of Patriot, it should be our highest glory to add the more distinguished character of Christian."

    Adams affirmed the Christian basis of the nation:
    "The general principles, on which the Fathers achieved independence, were the only Principles in which that beautiful Assembly of young Gentlemen could Unite, and these Principles only could be intended by them in their address, or by me in my answer. And what were these general Principles? I answer, the general Principles of Christianity, in which all these Sects were United: And the general Principles of English and American Liberty, in which all those young Men United, and which had United all Parties in America, in Majorities sufficient to assert and maintain her Independence.

    "Now I will avow, that I then believe, and now believe, that those general Principles of Christianity, are as eternal and immutable, as the Existence and Attributes of God; and that those Principles of Liberty, are as unalterable as human Nature and our terrestrial, mundane System."

  8. Anonymous4/7/13

    Patrick Henry
    Ratifier of the U.S. Constitution

    "It cannot be emphasized too strongly or too often that this great nation was founded, not by religionists, but by Christians; not on religions, but on the gospel of Jesus Christ. For this very reason peoples of other faiths have been afforded asylum, prosperity, and freedom of worship here."

  9. Anonymous4/7/13

    Oh, Daniel! This is one of your best. A truly beautiful and meaningful love song to the greatest ideals that men have ever created.

  10. This July 4th celebration of liberty for each individual soul is well-stated and timely. Your reminder, Daniel, of our unique American heritage is appropriate for this day that we have set aside to remind us of why Mr. Jefferson wrote the Declaration, and why the other guys signed it. Thank you, Daniel, for declaring it. Thank you for the 2013 elucidation of its continuing relevance to our presently complicated and muddled post-modern situation.
    As for the developing discussion among your adherents concerning the "God" factor--whether our rights are derived from Nature or from God--here is my vote for God, specifically Jesus.
    Happy Independence Day! Mine is certainly happy here in Hawaii on vacation. I hope yours, all ye Knishick responders, is happy, wherever you are. Pause and remember that we cannot give up on individual liberty.
    If we, who understand and practice the privilege of individual liberty, do not pass this torch to the next generation, who will?

  11. Anonymous4/7/13

    Magnificent! Daniel, this should be published on every website, on every blog, in every newspaper and handed out to every single student in America. It is the best writing about individualism, liberty, our Declaration of Independence, and tyranny I think I have ever read.

    How DO you do it?

    Happy Independence Day Daniel.


  12. DenisO4/7/13

    The insecurity of religious believers too often drove them to insist that everyone must believe as they do. Throughout history, there usually was an "or else" attached to that demand. Patrick Henry was an orator, not an author of the Constitution, and it is unlikely that he clearly understood it when he insisted that the Government was founded on the gospel of Jesus Christ. One actual author of the Constitution, also a signer, and later President, John Adams, wrote "As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion,—as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen [Muslims],—and..." just 10 years after the ratification of the Constitution, in the Treaty of Tripoli, it must be conceded that there was no general agreement on Henry's assertion. In fact, to avoid such historic "hassles", there was no mention of any god in the Constitution. To do so would have been to create a hornets' nest of unending contention.

  13. Anonymous4/7/13

    We say here in Czech Republic: "Each word is the gem".

  14. Anonymous4/7/13

    The founders sensed there was more to their creation than just the 'act of men'
    Benjamin Franklin's quote at the closing of the convention

    (although today , they would mostly regret it in disgust)

  15. Tom M, "Writer," Anonymous, Careyowland: My collective reply to you all concerning the Founders' faith, God, whether or not America was a "Christian" nation, and all that, is that the Founders were not infallible, and were wrong on that and on other issues. One must remember that being an atheist or even an agnostic in that period, even in America, was attendant with some risk. Benjamin Franklin, although a Quaker, surely did not live an exemplary "Christian life," in America or abroad. He once and with sympathy and near-agreement advised an ardent atheist, who wanted to promulgate in pamphlets the non-existence of God, to refrain from doing so, for otherwise he might find himself tarred and feathered by "forgiving" and "tolerant" Christians. My hat is off, however, to DenisO, who actually introduced some facts into the argument, re the Treaty of Tripoli.

  16. One thing's for sure: the Founders didn't advocate the pursuit of Communism. But then they are long dead white men, not a part of the emerging majority.

  17. Anonymous4/7/13

    Bless you, Daniel.
    I shall share this with everyone I know.
    - BarbaCat

  18. Anonymous4/7/13

    Happy Independence Day from two hours north of the border. I never gave much thought to epistemology ..how you know what you know..until I started reading you regularly. Your blog is consistently lacking in inconsistencies and noise. Cheers.
    Much at stake. Your country is like a well built loving family home that has lost control of their own and invited too many guests. Where is Ward, where is Fred?

  19. Bouillabaisse4/7/13

    Founders were not wrong but Edward Cline usually is.

  20. Anonymous5/7/13

    That is Cleaver and MacMurray of course. Patriarchy need not be a dirty word. By all accounts June was just fine and the three sons were ok too.

  21. Anonymous5/7/13

    That was great Daniel. Well stated, sir.

  22. Exactly. Thus, I now live on a boat!

    Very happy. :)

  23. A boat would be happiness


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