Normally I don’t discuss politics in this venue; and I avoid it for several reasons. First, my goal is foremost to help disgruntled lawyers. If I take a position that alienates half of them, I can’t do that. Second, I think the quality of political discourse, at least in the United States, has sunk so low as to be on par with professional wrestling (no offense to you WWE fans). I just don’t think a constructive conversation about politics is plausible in this environment. Third, most politics in the U.S. today is identity politics. People tend not to bother to examine the issues in a factual and logical way; they just parrot canned positions based on what tribe they consider themselves part of.
But today I’m going to go off script a little bit, because I believe there is a political, social and moral issue that is so elemental and so often overlooked and bypassed that I am compelled to raise it. The most fundamental of all your rights—the pursuit of happiness.
Bigger Even than the Constitution
We Americans are taught in school that our rights are protected by a list known as the Bill of Rights, which comprises the first ten amendments to our Constitution. You won’t find the pursuit of happiness anywhere on that list. So how can it be a fundamental right? Easy—as identified in our Declaration of Independence (the document that sets forth the moral basis for the right of the United States to exist) the right to pursue happiness is the reason we pursued the United States itself. It’s what we fought the revolution to get. Everything in the Constitution in some way relates back to protecting your right to the peaceable pursuit of your goals. Your right to live your life as you like is not in the Constitution because it exists beyond the Constitution. It is the moral and philosophical foundation on which the Constitution, and every other statute, regulation and decision rests.
“Pursuit of Hapiness”?
So what is the pursuit of happiness then? What do we mean when we say a person has the right to pursue happiness? We can begin to understand this by first identifying what it isn’t. Elementally, it isn’t the right to happiness; it is the right to pursue happiness. Government cannot guarantee us happiness. To think that it could Defies logic. How is government to determine what constitutes your happiness? How should elected officials promulgate policies that make you happy. They can’t. They’re not you. Only you can determine your goals and only you can decide whether you’ve achieved them. The most government can do is remove the obstacles in your way and make sure you have the fairest possible opportunity to seek your destiny and pursue your dreams.
I’m continually surprised at how often people of all political stripes fail to get this. Conservatives, liberals, socialists, whatever continually run after their constituency’s pet issues without taking even a moment to consider how their policies affect your ability to pursue your goals. Here’s a list of examples:
Examples of Wayswe Loose Happiness in Policy
- Pot—One way we pursue happiness is by making independent decisions on what to eat, drink and smoke. Most of these, including numerous drugs, are not particularly controversial but for some reason our society has decided to get hung up on weed. Our policies fail because they lose sight of the fact that it is not the government’s job to make sure that people don’t do pot. You have the right to do it, you have the right not to do it. But you have no right to dictate how other people determine their relationship to it. Nor is it the government’s job to continue guaranteeing lucrative sinecures to big tobacco, big alcohol, big pharma, and the private prison industry; all of which would vanish into thin air if pot were legal.
- Sex—It is no more the government’s job to pander to your sexual sensitivities than it is to guarantee anybody sex in the first place. You don’t have a right to live in a world free of pornography, LGBTQ people, or kinks. You don’t have a right to have the entire world use only the missionary position just because that’s the only position you’re comfortable with. You have a right to partake, or not, of anything you want. But it’s not government’s job to make sure your fragile sensibilities are protected against any and every deviation from your unrealistic vision of what is “normal”.
- Abortion—Here’s an issue on which the government shouldn’t be taking a position one way or the other, save to regulate it for safety like any other medical procedure. Government should no more subsidize your abortions than it should create out of the ether a “right” for you to live in a world free of reproductive choice. If your religious values are anti-abortion, you have every right to pursue your unintended pregnancy. But you don’t have a right to force other people to be pregnant. That decision is fundamental to their pursuit of happiness.
- Economic liberty—Wherever possible, protecting your right to pursue your goals and dreams should be the foremost role of government. That includes protecting your right to choose how you earn your money, your right to start any legal business without paying a bribe, your right to keep the fruits of your labor and your property. That doesn’t mean government has no role to play in the economy, because we need an impartial referee to make sure everyone is playing by the same rules, and that no one is improperly interfering with anyone else’s pursuit of their own happiness. But the government should not be picking winners or dictating outcomes. See Pot, above. The proper role of government is to protect the right of the marijuana and tobacco industries to ply their trade with reasonable, limited regulation to secure public safety and health. The government should not place a finger on the scale for tobacco by making marijuana illegal.
It’s Down to Us
Ultimately, government can only do so much. We, as individuals are the first line of defense of our right to design our lives in the way that will make us the happiest. And the way we will ensure the continuance of that most fundamental of rights for ourselves and our progeny is to exercise it, and not allow ourselves to be influenced in our decisions by government, other individuals, or families, our traditions or our affinities. We are individuals above all else, and we need to consider ourselves first and foremost in designing our lives.