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Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness

Thomas Jefferson

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness

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.

These famous words are in the preamble to the Declaration of Independence, written over 238 years ago. I see in these words a blueprint for society, a blueprint for human progress. The words themselves represent ideals that we have never reached, and perhaps imperfect humans could never reach. Thomas Jefferson, the author, fell far short of living up to his own words. We certainly have not attained perfection according to the ideals in the 238 years that have passed since these words were written.

But that is what we get when we use ideals as a blueprint. We have always fallen short; perhaps we always will, but that doesn’t mean that we should give up. We always have something to work towards. What I see in the historical record is this:

Events and outcomes that bring us closer to the ideals expressed in these words reflect progress of society, progress of humankind. Events and outcomes that take us further away from the ideals expressed in these words reflect societal and human regression.

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It would be foolish to focus on historical failings instead of the lessons to be learned. Certainly there are lessons to be learned here. We ignore the lessons when we dismiss these words by pointing out the failings of the author or the type of society that he helped to create. We ignore the lessons when we become satisfied with advances we have made instead of trying to understand what still needs to be done. Perhaps it would help if we understood the word “men” in the phrase “all men are created equal” as a term relating to humankind, not as a masculine term.

This is the blueprint that I am referring to:

“All men are created equal”, and “they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights”. “Governments are instituted among Men” “to secure these rights”. Society regresses “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive to these ends”.

Some people refer to these “unalienable rights” as natural rights. The ideals that I refer to are the attainment of these rights, the protection of these rights, and the guarantee that all people and all groups of people are universally acknowledged to possess these rights as equals. The fact that we have not reached these ideals as a society means that in order to advance, we have more work to do.

Unalienable rights – specifically life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – take precedence over everything else in society. We may consider these rights to be natural, but we do not retain them in the absence of a government “to secure these rights”. The historical record is very clear on this. Humans do not retain rights, and are not treated as equals, without the presence of a government “to secure these rights”. Also, humans do not retain rights, and are not treated as equals, if the government “becomes destructive to these ends”. It is up to us, as citizens, to ensure that the government understands that it derives its “just powers from the consent of the governed”, and governs accordingly. When the government fails to do so, it is our duty to make whatever changes are necessary.

We must make sure that we have a government that is there to secure our rights. We must keep in mind that such a government is there to treat all people as equals. It is not there to protect “my” rights by taking rights away from other people. It is not there to treat some groups of people as being second-class citizens. It is not there to allow some people to use their wealth to control the distribution of rights. “All men are created equal”. Unless we understand this, we will not be able to make progress as a society.

— Our government does not have rights.

— Our institutions do not have rights.

— Laws are not rights.

— Law enforcement is not a right.

— Even military protection is not a right.

These are nothing more than tools for securing these rights: “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

If these tools are used for something other than securing these rights for everyone, then they are being misused. If these tools are used for something that runs counter to these rights, then they must be stopped, and if necessary abolished in the name of humanity.


A version of this essay is included as a chapter in the book Common Misconceptions of Economic Policy by Jerry Wyant. You can purchase this book in paperback form from Amazon and other online book distributors. The list price is $12.99 (only $9.99 using discount code TA9GTK7E when ordering, depending on the distribution channel). Or if you prefer, you can download a digital version on your device (Kindle, Nook, etc.) for $4.99.

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Author: 
Jerry Wyant
Date: 
2014-08-04
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