Redefine the Right to “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness”

It is time for us all to decide who we are and what is worth fighting for. This line is paraphrased from the song Red and Black in Les Miserables. The illusion that the USA represents an ideal of freedom and dignity for all of its citizens has dissipated. The founding political documents hold a pretense of this intention for an egalitarian democracy but this ideal was never implemented. When the American oligarchy also loses its pretense of political legitimacy and the people come together to form a more perfect union one of the major questions we will need to answer first is what elements of the founding documents should be carried over.

Thomas Jefferson

John Locke

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, according to Thomas Jefferson in The Declaration of Independence, were unalienable rights provided by God. This is adapted from the economist John Locke who also included property in his list. The removal of property from the list is contentious. I support its removal and will discuss it in later blogs, but for now I defer this discussion to what was meant and what should be meant by “…life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”.

I’m a fan of the American founding political documents. The Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of Independence along with the Federalist and Anti-Federalist papers were groundbreaking political documents in their day. They overthrew monarchy and described a government of, by, and for the people. The intention of the revolution was a government of, by, and for a small group of land-owning, white men but if you take the language at face value, without a lot of the pesky context and rationalizing away of representation for the poor masses, the documents could have created a credibly functioning representative democracy. The system they created reflected another world entirely. Developments in communications technology since 1776 mean that the concept of an actual democracy, a direct democracy, which was impossible then, is feasible now.

My support for the rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” requires a socialist reinterpretation of the phrase. John Locke’s understanding of the phrase is libertarian and based around the right to property, as is his justification for the existence of government. His understanding of these rights relates to a person’s liberty within their social class, and their ability to enter commercial enterprises without the interference of government. His liberty allows for the social domination of the underclasses by the economic and political elites that is still in effect today. His government protects people and their rights to property. His conception has won the war of ideas through might and power and it is exemplified by the market liberalism that has crushed contemporary labor and developing nations.

Going forward my conception of the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness argues that the justification for the existence of government is to protect certain benefits for those who consent to its power. These benefits would be life through access to healthcare, food, water, and clean air. Liberty, or the ability to live a life that appeals to that individual restricted by reasonable guidelines, through access to education, community, and free-association. And property rights limited to the right over oneself, and the reasonable expectation of the delivery of the services and material goods implied by the rights to life and liberty.

Critics might argue that my leftist conceptions are utopian and ignore the realities of market economics that would limit societies’ abilities to supply the goods and services implied above. I would respond by pointing out that the status quo bleeds itself by promising capitalists and other wealthy people these goods and it starves the masses in doing so.

I don’t believe that the current lifestyles of the opulent or middle class would be possible if applied equitably. The general expectations for quality of life must decrease if humanity is to survive the ravages of climate change and overpopulation. The masses should consent to be governed by a system which produces craven luxury for those who consider themselves elite while expecting the rest of its citizenry to endure austerity.

I argue that, even if these ideas are utopian and unrealistic, they should be taken seriously in the discourse of the proper role of government. Besides the moral reasoning that people should be treated with dignity and that inequality delivers unnecessary suffering when material opulence is present, the wealthy should recognize that by presiding over a society that courts tens-of-thousands with luxury while negligent to the needs of billions the rich are inviting Marx’s predicted inevitable violence, and they are outnumbered.   


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