Monday, January 26, 2009

Pursuit of Happiness

“Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” – so states the Declaration of Independence. One of the interesting facts of this statement is that it is not ‘Life, liberty, and happiness’. The seven letters that make up the word ‘pursuit’ change the meaning of this founding statement of our country in a way that has been profoundly missed by Democrats (and some Republicans) for decades.

The fact that ‘pursuit of happiness’ was used, rather than simply ‘happiness’ is a clear indication that it is not the government’s job to provide happiness to all citizens, but to structure the system in such a fashion that allows individuals to freely operate and pursue their own happiness. It means that certain individuals may gain happiness while others may not (however happiness may be defined).

In his inaugural address, Obama outlined a philosophy that stands in stark contrast to this. He stated, “The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works — whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end.” This statement directly misinterprets the purpose and role of government in a profound and troubling way.

Obama’s call is for a government that provides happiness, rather than one that establishes ground rules to allow every individual to pursue their happiness. While the adjectives he chose to use could be broadly interpreted- after all a ‘dignified’ retirement can be understood in many ways; it is relatively clear from his party’s general stance that these words imply that the government should provide a fair amount of material goods to it's citizens in order for them to be happy. I see little reason to doubt that a dignified retirement in Obama’s eyes consists of a nice TV, and iPod, and other so called ‘necessities’ on the taxpayers’ dollar.

The issues of retirement and social security are far more complex than I am making them out to be here. I only draw on the issue to make the point that such rhetoric and associated policies attempt to blur the governments’ rightful task of providing an unimpeded right to pursue happiness into the illegitimate task of providing happiness. [This is, in no fashion, a claim that the government should not provide a bare minimum, but that the government’s role is to smooth the interchange between free agents in society, not GIVE anything to anyone.]

It is far better, from a societal and individual perspective, to educate citizens how to appropriately account for risks, and in this instance to plan for their retirement, rather than simply giving handouts. This can directly be understood in terms of the ‘pursuit of happiness’. An uneducated individual (in say, the ways of retirement planning) is at a severe informational disadvantage and thus is, in some ways, precluded from exercising his full right to pursue happiness. The solution is to educate him or provide means to education accordingly. This allows the government the ability to play referee in the societal marketplace, allowing everyone to play on the same field using the same rules.

In contrast, the philosophy proffered by Obama and his Democratic cohorts, attempts to find the most ‘fair’ system by adding and subtracting points from the score. This intuitively diffuses any incentives to play the game. After all, if we know the score will be tied in the end, why bother breaking a sweat.

The issue is relatively clear, when explained in such a fashion. Yet, the contrasting rhetoric, such as Obama's statements, is so easily slipped into the political dialogue that it is easy to miss. This language can also SOUND nice. After all, who doesn’t want their new president, especially in bad economic times, to tell them what they will be given [the American automakers and their ilk are, by the way, no different in this regard].

The fact of the matter is, whether the parties involved are retirees, insurance companies, minorities, Wall Street firms, special interests, etc. etc. the role of the government is NOT to give them anything, but to simply make sure they can achieve what they can via their own ambition and initiative on a equal playing field with everyone else. Obama fails to make this distinction; a failure that will have disastrous effects on America’s future.

1 comment:

  1. Isn't this the precise distinction between the Republican perspective of smaller government and the Democratic perspective of large government?


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