Blogger’s Note: I’ve been absent a long time, partly because I’ve been crazy busy this fall, and partly because I’ve had a terribly long and curmudgeonly blog post brewing in my head for months, and no time to write it. So I’ve settled on the “Rant-A-Day” format. My intention is to post a portion of the aforementioned terribly long and curmudgeonly blog post, in rant form, each day until the election, at which point (hopefully) they amount to something. The first Pre-Election Rant-A-Day is here.
“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.”
— The Declaration of Independence
Notice that the Founding Fathers didn’t simply say happiness, but the pursuit of happiness. Happiness is not a right. Happiness is not something the government can secure and guarantee for its citizens, because A) many of us have vastly different and very personal definitions of the word, and B) true happiness requires hard internal work.
No, we are not guaranteed happiness, only the pursuit of it — the opportunity to run it down, grasp it with both hands, and hold on to it if we can. Opportunity makes sense as an inalienable right — in fact, you might consider those first two inalienable rights as the necessary components for the third:
Life + Liberty = Opportunity
In other words (broadly speaking), if you are alive and free to act according to your own inclinations, you have opportunity — including the opportunity to define happiness for yourself and pursue it. Whether or not you actually achieve happiness depends primarily on your definition of happiness and the effort you put into it.
Of course, it’s not quite that simple. “Life,” for example, might be taken from you altogether, or complicated by physical, mental, or emotional circumstances that limit the opportunities available to you. And personal liberty must necessarily be limited at the point that it begins to infringe on the liberty of others. As a result, the opportunities available to pursue happiness may differ from person to person. In some cases, this will appear not to be fair.
“It’s not fair.” Three MORE insidious words that could be our downfall.
Harkening back to yesterday’s rant: if I can’t take credit for the blessings I was given as a boy (a cohesive family, a rural middle-class upbringing, and a solid education) because these things came about more or less independently of me — or if the criminal in jail cannot be held responsible for his broken home, bad neighborhood, etc. — then both he and I are left with our choices. How did we play the hand we were dealt?
Maybe life isn’t fair, insofar as we can’t all be right, all win the race, all have exactly the same opportunities and likelihood of success. But we are all free to make the best of what we’re given. What else is there? None of us knows what tomorrow holds. How can we ensure happiness for all — or make anyone happy — other than giving people a chance to stand on their own two feet? To fall and fall and rise again?
The pursuit is ours — the race is ours to run — which is why, when French students shut down a city to protest changes to an entitlement they haven’t earned, I thank God I live here and not there…until I hear the chants outside: We demand more jobs for more people with better pay and higher benefits, but don’t raise revenue and don’t cut costs or services. More accountability. Less administration. No one should struggle. No one should prosper.
Bulldoze the mountains to fill the valleys. How’s the view now?
Life, liberty, and opportunity. This is our inheritance. We should settle for nothing less, but we are entitled to nothing more, unless we earn it. Booker T. Washington once said, “Few things help an individual more than to place responsibility upon him and to let him know that you trust him.” Did you catch that? Responsibility is a self-affirming, confidence-boosting gift. It’s the optimistic expectation that you’ll take what you’ve been given and make something of it. It’s forward-looking, hopeful — and in a free society, fair.
Blogger’s Post-Script: This is not to say that we should not lift up those around us who need a hand — but that is another rant entirely.