Common Sense 2.0 is a series by former Senator Tom Coburn that will look at modern issues through a first principles lens.
Although our founders were imperfect people who ignored women’s suffrage and failed to correct the tragedy of slavery, they created a system to rectify their shortcomings that has stood the test of time. That same system gives millennials the opportunity to correct the generational theft being committed by the Baby Boomers of today I wrote about here.
This new column I’m launching at Pursuit called Common Sense 2.0 is going to explore how the founders gave us the tools to fix the problems of today.
First, I want to look at what the founders meant when they described the pursuit of happiness.
“Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” may be one of the most famous and yet least understood phrases in American life. To our ears, the four words at the end of that phrase, “the pursuit of Happiness,” may seem like a feel good add on, the stuff of inspirational memes. In context, however, those four words carry real power and deep insight.
Let’s look at the two key words in the phrase: “pursuit” and “happiness.”
Today, we usually think of pursuit as mainly a quest, chase or hunt. But the word “pursuit” has a dual meaning – both a quest and a practice. At our founding both meanings were common.
Happiness, which was capitalized in the Declaration, means more than simply fleeting good feelings or pleasure.
Carli N. Conklin writes in “The Origins of the Pursuit of Happiness”:
Happiness in this sense is synonymous with the Greek concept of eudaimonia; it evokes a sense of well being or a state of flourishing that is the result of living a fit or virtuous life.
Taken together, “the pursuit of Happiness” means occupying oneself with achieving not merely pleasure or fleeting happiness but flourishing.
When Thomas Jefferson, the primary drafter of the Declaration, wrote “the pursuit of Happiness” he was mindful of how easy it would be for one generation to limit the next generation’s pursuit. Jefferson feared those shackles would come in the form of debt. He wrote:
“We acknowledge that our children are born free; that that freedom is the gift of nature, and not of him who begot them.”
“Then I say, the earth belongs to each of these generations during its course, fully and in its own right. The second generation receives it clear of the debts and incumbrances of the first, the third of the second, and so on. For if the first could charge it with a debt, then the earth would belong to the dead and not to the living generation. Then, no generation can contract debts greater than may be paid during the course of its own existence.”
As today’s Baby Boomer generation heads for retirement and its twilight years, it is realizing Jefferson’s fear: a generation that is passing is going to limit the opportunity and pursuit of a generation that should be flourishing.
Finally, let’s complete the context. After the phrase “the pursuit of Happiness” the Declaration reads:
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.
The pursuit of Happiness is individualist, to be sure, but it is equally something we are called to do together. I disagreed with Barack Obama vehemently when I served in office but I will never apologize for calling him my friend. He understood as well as I that during the brief time we were entrusted with political power we were called upon to be loyal to a pursuit bigger than ourselves.
Arthur Schlesinger writes in “The Lost Meaning of ‘The Pursuit of Happiness’”:
John Adams in his Thoughts on Government (Philadelphia, 1776) declared that “the happiness of society is the end of government.” In short, none of these spokesmen of the American cause thought of happiness as something a people were entitled simply to strive for but as something that was theirs by natural right.
The Declaration and our founders also delivered a clear message: Government should be in the background, not foreground, of American life. Government exists not to provide flourishing but to secure our collective right to pursue flourishing.
It was no accident the Declaration of Independence was written the same year as Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. In 1776, Smith prophetically described how the “invisible hand” of the market would benefit society as a whole. Smith was right. No system ever devised has created more prosperity, created more opportunity and lifted more people out of poverty than the free enterprise system. At the same time, the drafters our Declaration of Independence described the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” as the rights of all people. Smith and our founders understood the intimate connection between economic prosperity and political freedom.
This site, Pursuit, stands for the things that lead to flourishing and against those things that undermine flourishing. Today’s government, which imposes on younger generations debt burdens and obligations these young Americans never voted for, needs to be corrected and, when necessary, upended. As Jefferson warned, those obligations are limiting the capacity of younger Americans to make choices and to pursue Happiness in the present. Fortunately, the founders wisely put the power to correct this problem in hands of the emerging generations of today.