by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
David French of National Review Online contrasts the American Founders’ vision of the “pursuit of happiness” with current conditions.
The American republic was founded for a people who increasingly do not exist. It was founded to facilitate a dynamic culture — against the backdrop of war, the ultimate risk — to guarantee not safety and comfort but hope and possibility. A founding generation stared the world’s greatest military power in the face and didn’t just rebel but articulated a spiritual and cultural purpose for a new nation and a new government. The government existed to protect the liberty of the people, and the people were to use that liberty to do something positive, to “pursue happiness.”
This was no call for hedonism, but — as Thomas Jefferson noted — a quest rooted in certain cardinal virtues: prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice. John Locke, generations before, described the pursuit of happiness and took care to call it “true and solid happiness,” distinguishing it at length from instant gratification or the satisfaction of immediate desires. Without digressing too far into the philosophical weeds, it is safe to say that neither Locke nor Jefferson would recognize or endorse a pursuit of happiness disconnected from real and eternal virtues.
In other words, they would be appalled at what passes for the “pursuit of happiness” in stagnating states of America. This weekend I finished reading Tyler Cowen’s The Complacent Class, one of the most important reads of the new year. He comprehensively chronicles how Americans are making deliberate decisions on a mass scale that collectively add up to a culture that is avoiding risk, seeking comfort, and clustering together in like-minded communities.
Americans are less willing to move, to start new companies, or to live or work with people from different socioeconomic classes. We’re clustering with people of like mind, similar income, and the same race. It’s a devastating portrait of a nation that is losing its dynamism in favor of, essentially, “digging in.”