Thomas Jefferson wrote “that all men … are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” These are, indeed, unalienable (or inalienable, in modern spelling) rights, i.e. rights that, fundamentally, can neither be given nor taken away.

While it’s difficult to imagine how the government would strip us of our right to happiness, it is certainly capable of interfering with our pursuit of happiness. And, it has done so, in countless ways large and small.

Almost everything you do or want to do is regulated. Your associations with others are, if there’s any economic interaction, likewise regulated, mandated, or prohibited. They haven’t figured out how to get into your head to judge and react to your beliefs, but once you voice, act upon, or associated based on your beliefs, there’s the government to meddle, assurances of free speech, assembly, religion, etc. aside.

Where does all this come from? We can blame big-government politics, and obviously that’s the proximate source of all this meddling, but political action doesn’t arise whole-cloth from the minds of politicians. Our representatives respond to cultural demands. In other words, we are doing this to ourselves.

Many wonder and lament at the splintering and unraveling of society today, despite the explosion of tools and means to interconnect, interact, and share more closely than ever. This splintering is evinced in the political realm, where we’ve descended into all-in tribalism, where dissent or compromise are often causes for excommunication and ejection. Why?

The power of interconnectivity has enabled a state of false familiarity with each other. We think that, because we see little bits of the inner each other via our interactions, we can presume to know each other better than we actually do. And, because of that partial knowing, we feel we can judge each other. This makes it easier to denigrate each other when there’s disagreement. And, with the separation of time and space that our new forms of interaction create, we don’t get instant feedback for passing such judgments. This makes it easier to see others as “lesser” than us, without feeling the sting of social disapproval for being so anti-social.

That false familiarity has dampened or quashed entirely another axiom cited by Jefferson: that we are all equal. One of the most vital foundations of the principle of individual liberty is that no one person’s liberties supersede those of another. I cannot claim free exercise of my right when it violates free exercise of your right.

This obviously covers things like physical violence and trespassing, but it also undermines any argument for “positive rights” i.e. those where you demand to be given something of value from others (typically via government). Such positive “rights” (scare quotes deliberate) include the free health care, free schooling, a job, a specific or minimum wage, or preferential treatment based on some demographic factor. And, yet, all those and many more are bestowed upon some, to varying degrees, by government. Many of us are quite OK with that – with demanding that government take from others in order to fulfill our ideas of how others are to be treated.

It also applies culturally, as elucidated in the golden rule, also known as the law of reciprocity. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Do not treat others in ways you wish not to be treated. This is echoed in the “to be left alone in one’s toil” echoing of what many have called the Protestant Work Ethic.

Here’s where it all breaks down. Social media, the 24 hour news cycle, instant sharing of news and information, and that aforementioned false familiarity have broken down our respect for each other’s autonomy and pursuit of happiness.

“Society” no longer accepts your right to be happy. It doesn’t matter who you are, or what your beliefs are. There is a constantly evolving rule set for social behavior nowadays, a rule set that has deviated wildly from the golden rule. Some call it political correctness, some call it social justice, some call it identity politics, some call it being “woke.” We can easily understand how those who curate and mandate this rule set would tell dissenters, nonconformists, heretics, apostates, and even the indifferent that they are not permitted happiness. But, they also deny happiness to those who strive to conform to every syllable of this rule set.

If you are a member of an oppressed group, you cannot be happy because of the oppressions you and your group members endure and have endured, and because your oppressors have not completely prostrated themselves as repentance (and they never can – there’s never enough). If you are a member of an oppressor group, you must not be happy because of injustices some who superficially look like you have carried out, and because your repentance and remediation can never be enough. If you are at the fore of social justice, you must be perpetually angry, because the world is so unjust and because not everyone is doing as you know they should. Those who believe thus continue to drive legislation, regulation, and court rulings that enforce these beliefs.

Beyond the social justice angle, we are beset by countless obstacles to any happiness we are told is not good for us, large and small. Want to buy some fried chicken and biscuits from a chain restaurant? The food police want to make sure you know how many calories you’re eating, in order to not-so-subtly shame you for indulging. Want to enjoy that Big Gulp tub-o-soda? Pay taxes on it, even if you’re skinny as a rail. Want to braid your friends’ and neighbors hair, for a quick buck or two? In 14 states, you need hundreds of hours of cosmetology school training. Want to set up a music studio in your garage, one that’s so soundproof no one can hear anything from outside? Too bad.

The destruction of our right to pursue happiness may very well be the core of that which plagues today’s society, and may very well be why society seems to be unraveling. We are being told to be unhappy – nay, we are urged to be unhappy – because of circumstances of birth, because someone else may be happy in believing something we do not, because we are happy about the wrong things, because someone else is unhappy, because government is doing too much, because government is not doing enough, because someone else is too successful, because someone else is not successful enough, because someone else is needy, because someone else has more than we do, and on and on. Beyond mere urging, we witness a pervasive legislative, administrative, and judicial antipathy to the rights and liberties upon which our ability to pursue happiness resides.

If happiness and its pursuit themselves are under assault, is it any wonder that society seems so broken?

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.

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