There is a time bomb in the Declaration of Independence.
No, this isn’t another bad Nicholas Cage movie.
Just a bad blog post lede.
The bomb is real enough, but of the semantic rather than the semtex variety. Thomas Jefferson penned the line, “[all men] are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…” Substituting, some argue, “the pursuit of happiness” in place of the Lockean completion of the Enlightenment triad, “property.” Jefferson could not have predicted the developments that would stem from that small change.
Jefferson’s Epicurean edit cannot bear the whole freight of blame for the current state of our society and the precarious footing on which the American liberties now stand, but it did make its own significant contributions. Rooted in it, we now have a vision of liberty in the United States that regards the most basic and inalienable right among Jefferson’s Three as the pursuit of happiness: any pursuit of any pleasure is valid eo ipso; any law barring such pursuit is dangerous, and any person hindering by speech or conduct of business the pleasurable pursuits of their fellow citizens is a dangerous element. This vision makes the appetitive and affective individual the center of reality, as the majority opinion of the US Supreme Court in Planned Parenthood v. Casey held: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”
In contrast to this prevailing contemporary vision of liberty, I would propose this: first, that the most basic of our liberties remains the liberty of speech and free exercise of religious belief; and second, that this most basic liberty is better secured by a high regard for life, liberty, and property than by a high regard for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
By property, I mean, those material goods capable of being possessed and worked in order to produce some other material goods. Historically, this almost always meant land owned and worked in a household economy, and even in the radically technological economy of today, there are few versions of “property” that do not ultimately entail some ownership of land. Ownership of property in this sense liberates the individual from slavery to an employer or government for his sustenance, and thus frees the individual to speak, vote, and worship in all of life according to his conscience. When our aim in government, then, is to secure life, liberty, and property, we secure the most basic of our liberties, and thus secure all the rest. When, however, government aims to secure life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, we create a people willing to exchange their liberty of conscience for security to their happiness; or worse, a people willing to exchange others’ liberty of conscience for security to their own happiness. It matters little, for example, if one’s company advocates for the radical neo-Gnosticism and self-mutilation involved in transgender ideology, because one is compensated well for one’s work, and is able to purchase a comfortable house in the suburbs, adequately anaesthetizing entertainments, and a newer, younger wife every few years. Or, to use another example, it matters little if one destroys the small business and life savings of a woman who bakes cakes, because her liberty of conscience is a threat, somehow, to one’s pursuit of happiness.
There are two ways we might consider better securing our liberties. The first is to consider the possibility of a Universal Basic Income available to all citizens. While this might at first glance appear to put all citizens in slavery to the government which provides the basic income, the massive changes in the global economy that might be brought on by AI and machine learning could make such a course possible.
A second (more realistic) possibility is to advocate for personal ownership and legal protection of economically-productive property at all levels of society. Recognizing that basic liberties are threatened when first, the main aim of government is securing the pursuit of happiness, and second, the main locus of economic production is some workplace where people go to produce or sell goods, we should push for minimalistic government policy that enables people at every level of society to provide for their own sustenance in homes and local economic units. This can be the first step to defusing the semantic time bomb in the Declaration of Independence.