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. That to secure these rights, government are instituted among men….
(The American Declaration of Independence. 1776.)
These few lines are what makes the United States of America different, not so much from various tyrannies, as from other democratic societies. This is not Sweden, this is not France, and not even England, the “Mother of Parliaments.”
Some Americans seem unaware of this fact right now, because they forgot it, because they never learned it, or because they want to ignore it, for their own purpose.
“Self-evident,” means that, these truths don’t require an explanation.
If they are not self-evident to you, we have the beginning of a problem. I suspect we are not on the same side.
“endowed by their Creator,” is deliberately broad wording. It does not necessarily mean the God of Jews and Christians though you should feel free to interpret it this way. The founders themselves were mostly vague about their religious beliefs. Most were “Deists” which is another way to say, “I don’t need to talk about this but whatever you believe is fine with me.” The over-arching meaning is this: These rights come from the highest authority you can think of. The direct logical implication is that one cannot appeal to another, even higher authority to destroy them. One cannot, in particular, vote them into oblivion.
If you hesitate on this, you are a potential enemy, as far as I am concerned.
“life” means just that. The government is supposed to protect my life. If it cannot do it, for whatever reason, life is still my inalienable right. It cannot be taken from me. Of course, it follows that my capacity to bear arms to protect myself also cannot be taken from me.
If the government protects my life, there is nothing in the Declaration, or in the Constitution, that says it has to do it in a stupid manner. So, I don’t expect it to do it only when people who want to cut my throat have finally landed in California. It it’ serious about protecting my life, it should do it without hesitation, as far away from where I live as possible, in Afghanistan, for example.
If you don’t believe these simple propositions and if you don’t believe I have a right to have weapons, you are just one more reason why I should have weapons.
“the pursuit of happiness” is the least understood of our inalienable rights. It may also be the most important, in its inclusive way. It says, with admirable brevity that I may do any damn thing I want to do. This short phrase means that the government must have grave reasons, rooted in the Constitution or in the Declaration itself, to interfere in any way with what I damn well please.
It sets a very clear burden of proof on the government.
It follows from those few words that old men with spindly legs and wearing short shorts may drive their huge recreational vehicles all over the country, forever. It means that fat women have every right to become even fatter by eating fat ice-cream. It means that American citizens can eat and smoke whatever they want. It means that city councils may not outlaw skate-boarding just because it frightens old ladies (for no reason, it turns out. Facts matter!)
Departures from this principle cannot be tolerated on the basis of reasonableness alone, or by simple majority rule. The Declaration does not say anywhere that these rights are alienable when it makes sense or when the majority, or a two-thirds majority, or all but one, want it so. Nor does the US Constitution.
The most common and the most egregious way in which modern governments violate this right to the pursuit of happiness is through indiscriminate use of their power of taxation. The power to tax me and those who provide what I want is obviously the power to destroy my right to the pursuit of happiness. Taxing is a moral issue. I regret bitterly that we seldom discuss it as a moral issue but only as a practical one.
If you don’t believe that I have the right to pursue my own form of happiness – without hurting anyone else directly and concretely – you are out to destroy the meaning of my life. It’s a form of murder. In that case, you are obviously my enemy and I should treat you as an enemy as far as I am able to. Don’t even begin to think you can act friendly with me.
As always, we must pay attention to what is not said: Here are two things, desirable to many, that are not inalienable rights, in the Declaration, or anywhere in the Constitution: fairness – except in the application of laws, and equality – except in the application of laws.
Pursue you happiness. I wish you well. But don’t annex and abuse the armed power of the government to take what’s mine to serve your pursuit. Again, I wish you well, but there is a thick line in the sand between us. If you cross it, anything might happen.