by Gary North
Old timers will recall this as a memorable line in a memorable comedy album, Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America, Volume 1.
Note 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 in."
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.
WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO "PROPERTY"?
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.
Man 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. 87).
Protection 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.
JEFFERSON WAS NOT ALONE
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 (1998).
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 Frédéric 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 Law, "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 happiness.
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.
When 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.
July 4, 2006
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