The Purfuit of Happineff

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Old timers
will recall this as a memorable line in a memorable comedy album,
Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America, Volume 1.

to those readers who do remember: It was released in 1961. “Why,
it seems like only the day before yesterday. . . .” That is the
problem, isn’t it? Even worse, Volume
2, packaged with Volume 1
, was released in 1996. “Why, it seems
like only yesterday. . . . ”

The album was
a musical, and it was better than most Broadway musicals. It chronicled
America’s history up to Yorktown (1781), which was won because of
a spectacular canvas painting by “that Rockwell kid” of a huge Revolutionary
army facing the Cornwallis’ army, who immediately surrendered. Only
later, when the canvas inadvertently rolled up, did Cornwallis see
how he had been deceived. “Fortunes of war. . . .”

Anyway, there
was an earlier scene when Ben Franklin is approached by Thomas Jefferson,
with a request to sign the Declaration of Independence. Franklin
is skeptical. Jefferson persists. Franklin reads it out loud. “When
in the course of human events, hmmmm, hmmmm, hmmmm, “Life, liberty,
and the purfuit of happineff.” He asks Jefferson about his use of
these odd-looking s’s. Jefferson assures him “it’s in . . . very

Very funny.
For those of you who have not spent hours reading pre-1800 printed
material, there was a letter, which looked sort of like an uncapitalized
f, which represented the letter s. Actually, it was a separate letter. The little horizontal bar did not cross through
the vertical part of the letter. It extended leftward from the vertical
bar. Also, at the end of a word, the familiar letter s appears.
So, “happiness” looked like “happinefs.” But happinefs would
not have been nearly so funny in the dialog.


The phrase,
“life, liberty, and property,” does not appear in the Declaration.
The phrase is incorrectly attributed to John Locke. It was implied
in Locke’s Second
Treatise on Government
(1690), but it does not appear. Locke
used the word estate rather than property. He subsumed
all three words under property.

being born, as has been proved, with a title to perfect freedom
and an uncontrolled enjoyment of all the rights and privileges of
the law of Nature, equally with any other man, or number of men
in the world, hath by nature a power not only to preserve his property,
that is, his life, liberty, and estate, against the injuries and
attempts of other men, but to judge of and punish the breaches of
that law in others, as he is persuaded the offence deserves, even
with death itself, in crimes where the heinousness of the fact,
in his opinion, requires it (Sect.

for all three — life, liberty, property — is guaranteed
in writing by the United States Constitution. This guarantee appears
in Article 5 of the Bill of Rights, which was ratified in 1791.
It has proven as reliable as other government guarantees of its
own performance.

A similar phrase
appears in Edmund Burke’s Reflections
on the Revolution in France
(1790). Of the revolutionaries,
he said:

To those
who have observed the spirit of their conduct it has long been
clear that nothing was wanted but the power of carrying the intolerance
of the tongue and of the pen into a persecution which would strike
at property, liberty, and life.

But there is
no question that Jefferson substituted “the pursuit of happiness”
for the more common term, “property.” Was there something ideological
in this substitution? Was Jefferson a proto-socialist, as numerous contemporary
historians argue

Had he inserted
“property,” this would have saved defenders of private property
a lot of time and trouble when dealing with statist scholars, who
are always searching for support for their position in the writings
of famous defenders of democracy.

The pursuit
of happiness is for modern academic man what the pursuit of truth
is: a way to avoid the responsibility for discovering anything final.
There is no objective truth for modern academic man, other than
the truth against objective truth. Similarly, there is no objective
happiness. There is only the subjective pursuit of such lofty goals
by individuals. In this, as in virtually everything else, academics
substitute process for objectivity. Participating in the process
is the equivalent of holy communion for modern academics. There
is officially no holy grail, which would be much too objective.

Why this commitment
to pursuit, trivial or otherwise? I suggest two reasons. First,
academics do not officially believe in objective truth, which implies
objective responsibility, which is decidedly old fashioned and even
vaguely suggestive of the Christian doctrine of final judgment.
The concept of objective responsibility implies objective standards
and objective performance. Academics prefer to avoid both.

Second, modern
academics control access to salaried participation in the process
of the great search, especially in higher education. They control
the implementation of the officially objective standards of tenure,
institutional accreditation, and the flow of departmental funds.
What Daniel Klein has described so well in the closed, self-certified world of Ph.D. economists operates
in every academic discipline.

In contrast,
“property” implies enforceable titles to identifiable units of ownership.
This is altogether too objective for modern defenders of the political
defense of the pursuit of happiness. They defend the democratic
process, which affirms, “Thou shalt not steal, except by majority
vote.” They want to believe in Jefferson the democrat, not Jefferson
the defender of free market capitalism. They want to eradicate political
restrictions on the confiscation of property by the State. The suggestion
that politics exists so as to defend private property is only marginally
less welcome than the suggestion that the Second Amendment to the
Constitution actually means that civilians possess the right to
keep and bear arms.


It was not
only Jefferson who neglected to spell out in official detail his
personal adherence to the private property social order. It was
also Adam Smith, whose Wealth
of Nations
(1776), four months earlier, had placed the division
of labor at the forefront of its economic attack on mercantilism,
an attack that Jefferson made political in the Declaration. Smith’s
pedagogical strategy backfired for the next 150 years. By failing
to specify in Wealth of Nations the moral and philosophical
foundations for private ownership, Smith handed the seemingly high
moral ground over to Godwin and the socialists. The consequences
of this decision have been chronicled in considerable detail by
Tom Bethell in Chapter 7 of his book, The
Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity Through the Ages


Jefferson was
the supreme follower of Adam Smith among the American Revolutionaries.
But by failing to specify property as the third pillar of the justification
for civil government — a mistake Locke had not made —
he made more difficult his ideological heirs’ defense of the private
property order.

The pursuit
of happiness is open-ended and non-specific. Liberty is just too
vague to be defended systematically. What was needed in 1776 in
both of those legendary documents was the insight made by Frdric
Bastiat in 1850, in the midst of a European revolution that had
begun in early 1848, a few weeks before Marx and Engels’ anonymous
tract appeared, Manifesto of the Communist Party. Bastiat
wrote in The
, “Life, liberty, and property do not exist because men
have made laws. On the contrary, it was the fact that life, liberty,
and property existed beforehand that caused men to make laws in
the first place.” Or, in the words of a previous defender of objective
private property, “Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely
eat: But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt
not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt
surely die” (Genesis 2:16b—17).


Jefferson wrote
a classic essay in 1776. It is no longer read in its entirety. Its
economic complaint is no longer taken seriously by those who claim
to be his political heirs. “He has erected a multitude of new offices,
and sent hither swarms of officers to harass our people, and eat
out their substance.” In fact, his self-proclaimed heirs seem to
believe that our pursuit of happiness is dependent on ever-more
numbers of office-holders and their ever-more-rapid depletion of
our substance. It is the office-holders’ pursuit of their happiness
that presently reduces the ability of the rest of us to pursue our

Today, the
process is everything. The goal of the political process is to capture
that other crucial process, the flow of funds. The process that
counts in modern politics is an interminable quest to control and
multiply the offices that provide their holders with the ability
to direct the other processes.

it comes to the pursuit of my happiness, I am willing to settle
for an all-around agreement to defend life, liberty, and property.
This can and should begin by the widespread purchase of sufficient
Second Amendment hardware to defend the other nine.

4, 2006

North [send him mail] is the
author of Mises
on Money
. Visit
He is also the author of a free 17-volume series, An
Economic Commentary on the Bible

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