“Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” This is the promise of the Declaration of Independence. The promise that there are certain rights that all individuals are born with. We don’t get these rights from any other human being or group of human beings. They can’t be taken away from us by any human being or group of human beings. This is what makes America unique to the world. This promise is what created a fast forward in society from the quality of life of 1770 to the quality of life of 2009. Before this promise, the world was pretty stagnant in quality of life.
Take a good look at the promise. Life. Liberty. Pursuit of happiness. Our government was created to make sure this promise wasn’t violated. Our federal government was created to ensure that local and state governments didn’t infringe this promise and act contrary to The Constitution and Bill of Rights. Government was meant, by our Founders, to be a very limited thing. Why? Because more government always means less freedom and our Founders knew that. Read them. They held a great disdain for pure democracy knowing that pure democracy hammered the individual and the minority. They called it the “tyranny of the majority.” That’s why we have a representative republic.
It all ties back to the promise in the Declaration of Independence. How do you guarantee those three things that each human being has at birth? The answer: a limited government that stays out of almost everything and only comes into play when those rights are violated. One that has checks and balances including a judiciary that strictly interprets the Constitution to protect citizens from an overzealous government. Slavery violated those rights. State gun restrictions violate those rights. State laws against homeschooling violate those rights. People not having enough money for a down-payment on a mortgage does not violate those rights.
“Pursuit of happiness.” This is not a guarantee of happiness. It’s only a guarantee that you can pursue happiness. We also have to know how to define “happiness.” Ask 10 people and get 8 different answers. Many people think happiness is a feeling. You’re happy when your football team wins the Super Bowl or happy when you win $100 in a raffle. Over the years happiness has been devalued to lead people to pursue a lot of surface things that bring temporary good feeling. That’s why we have a high quality of life but a big suicide rate and tons of drugs that enhance your mood and a society that is out of whack.
Real happiness, the happiness that Jefferson wrote of by borrowing from John Locke, and that Locke likely borrowed from Aristotle, is not happiness in things or a fleeting feeling. It’s a happiness brought on by following virtue. It’s a fundamental happiness in the soul that brings contentment and gives true liberty and freedom from being a slave to vices. Individual virtue and freedom from vice gives rise to community virtue and community freedom from vice. The greedy millionaire is probably neither happy nor free because there’s never enough money and he or she is a slave to making that money. The sexual Don Juan is neither happy nor free because sexual pleasure is short lived and the need to make another sexual conquest is always present. These examples are probably hindering other individuals in their pursuit of vice. These “pleasures” are usually masking something else and trying to make up for something fundamental that is lacking.
A man like Francis of Assisi is a good historical example of this pursuit of happiness. Francis grew up wealthy and took part in a lot of temporary pleasures. Then he dedicated his life to God, gave up his money, lived like a pauper, and probably held complete liberty and contentment until he died. That is not to say you have to live the life that Francis of Assisi led, but it is to say that pursuing virtue is real happiness and what Jefferson wrote of in the Declaration of Independence.
True happiness is virtue, as told by Greek philosophers like Aristotle. However, there is a boundary that we can not cross over in terms of virtue. Virtue can’t be forced by someone else. For true happiness to occur, the action has to be pure. You have to decide for yourself that you want to do what is right. Then that action will add to your core. If someone forces you to do what is right, it’s false virtue. You’ll know it’s false and your core will know it’s false. Once you aren’t being forced anymore, you will cease doing what is virtuous. The cat is away, so it’s time to play. This is why laws are more for punishment and less for limiting what is criminal. Do you need a law to tell you that murder is a crime? Why don’t gun laws create a decline in gun violence? You can’t force virtue on some people. Aristotle talks about virtue having to be voluntary.
When the government forces virtue through taxation or other laws, it’s not voluntary. This creates a problems on a number of levels. One, it creates a section of society that becomes dependent on getting things. This is a problem because if someone is continually given and taken care of, they do not grow their own virtues. The four Western Virtues are: temperance, prudence, fortitude, and justice. If we believe Aristotle, these are to be done voluntarily in order to gain happiness. Temperance is moderation. Prudence is the practice of sound judgement. Fortitude is courage. Justice is the moderation between selfishness and selflessness. It is giving to others what is due to them. These 4 virtues are learned through a lifetime of wisdom, experiences, and reading. Wisdom and experience can’t be handed to you. If your actions hold consequences, you learn from those consequences and change your behavior to avoid those consequences, if it hurts enough. That is wisdom. (Some people will never learn, that why you have lifetime criminals and for the good of society they are locked away.) If you ruin a relationship through gambling, you will hope that it hurts enough to stop gambling. Experience and wisdom. If your relationship partner lets you off the hook, they are enabling you and you won’t learn. The same is said for the government giving and giving. If the government is enabling people to live without virtues, they will not be happy and in fact, the government that promises the pursuit of happiness is violating that promise. This is not to say people shouldn’t get help when needed. But there is a difference between help and enabling. Teach men to fish rather than giving them fish. If you have ever heard the phrase about the journey being better than the destination, you know the real joy in working and growing your life through virtue.
The second problem is that it creates a section of society that becomes resentful. Force creates resentment. Do you see the anger and frustration in America today? People resent the government. America is a good country full of good people. Many of those that have enough, give to others that don’t. They do it on their own. They give to the Red Cross, Habitat for Humanity, and the ASPCA. They give their time to help others in need. They feel good when they give to someone and see that someone then be able to make it on their own. What turns good feelings into resentment is force. It’s force with the end result being those being helped being enabled to stay and continually need help. Have you ever heard a teacher talk about helping kids to learn? Have you ever felt the joy of teaching someone a skill and seeing them apply that skill on their own? Now imagine being forced to teach someone something and then having to continually teach them because they can’t apply it on their own. If the government just got out-of-the-way, people could get help and then apply it on their own. Then they could feel happiness.
Our government is now unable to get out-of-the-way. Our government is violating the promise of the Declaration of Independence. They are enabling people to live without virtues* and are forcing others to apply virtues in ways that are inconsistent with their own natures. The question to why this is happening is a difficult one to answer. Some of the answers lie in the government wanting control. Some of the answers lie in the fact that there are those who believe they know better than you because of their upbringing or their education. Virtue is a personal thing that is learned on your own. You are born on this planet and live a life in order to grow as a human. Your goal is to pursue happiness. Or, to grow and learn virtue. It’s time for the government to stop taking that away from us. It’s time for individuals to understand that happiness is something deeper. Maybe if we, as individuals, take the lead and live with virtue, our government will follow.
*Don’t confuse my use of “virtues” with people being “good” people. I’m talking about the 4 Western or Cardinal Virtues. We are all works in progress and are all learning throughout life. Just because you need help doesn’t mean you aren’t a good person. But if you can’t develop and learn the 4 Cardinal Virtues, you will not be happy.
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