the imaginative conservative logo

right to happiness

An amusing citation from Margaret Thatcher reads: “The problem with socialism is that you eventually run out of other people’s money.” The socialists, however, were not the only ones who would run out of other people’s money. Democracies are quite capable of duplicating this feat.

 The question is this: What entitles us to acquire other people’s money in the first place? Do other people have any money that is not ours if we “need” it? Taxation, with or without representation, is about this issue. Who decides what we need? Who gets what is taken from us? On what grounds do they deserve it? 

C. S. Lewis said that no one has a right to happiness. Our Declaration only says that we have a right to pursue it. Whether we attain it is not something that falls under the perplexing language of “rights.” If someone else guarantees my right to be happy, what am I? Surely not a human being, whose happiness, as Aristotle said, includes his own activity, not someone else’s.

In a world of rights, no one can give anything to anybody else. Everything is owed to me if I do not already have it. If I am not happy, I am a victim of someone else’s negligence. A “rights society” is litigious. If I am unhappy, it has nothing to do with me; my unhappiness is caused by someone else who has violated my rights.

Unhappy people witness the violation of their rights by someone else; their unhappiness does not involve them. Their mode is not, “What can I do for others?” but, “What must they do for me to make me happy?”

In his Ethics, Aristotle remarked that, if happiness were a gift of the gods, surely they would give it to us. No Christian can read such a line without pause. Is not the whole essence of our faith that we have no “right” either to existence itself or to a happy existence? Some things must first be given to us, no doubt—including our very selves, which we do not cause.

Indeed, the whole essence of revelation is that we do not have a right to the eternal life that God has promised to us. We cannot achieve it by ourselves, because it is not a product of our own making or thinking. God does not violate our “rights” by not giving us either existence or happiness; creation is not an act of justice.

The doctrine of grace opposes the notion that we have a right to happiness. It is not even something that we deserve or can work for. At first sight, this primacy of gift and grace seems to lessen our dignity, which surely ought to include some input on our part.

Christianity says that indeed this “givenness” is the case. We are given what we have no right to receive. This givenness should make us like the Giver, should incite us to something more than our own “rights.” Happiness evidently lies beyond rights. We can only speak of a “right” to happiness with many distinctions.

What was the point of Margaret Thatcher’s quip about running out of someone else’s money? Some do demand someone else’s money. From whence does this demand arise? From those who claim that they have a right to happiness. If they do not have what others have, it is a sign, not of one’s own failure to embrace the habits and ways to produce what is needed, but of someone unjustly having what I think I need. Thus, I do not have to earn what I need. The mere fact that I do not have it is enough to suggest that someone else is preventing me from enjoying my “right” to be happy.

Much of the world is filled with what I call “gapism.” The so-called gap between the rich and poor, the haves and the have-nots, is a sign, not of the natural order in which some know more and work more, but of a dire conspiracy to deprive me of what is my right. So the purpose of “rights” is to correct the world’s “wrongs.” A divine mission flashes in the eyes of those who would presume to make us happy by giving us our “rights.” People lacking the “right” justify the takers.

So we do not have a right to be happy. The assumption that we do lies behind the utopian turmoil of our times. The attempt to guarantee our right to be happy invariably leads to economic bankruptcy and societal coercion. By misunderstanding happiness and its gift-response condition, we impose on the political order a mission it cannot fulfill. We undermine that limited temporal happiness we might achieve if we are virtuous, prudent, and sensible in this finite world.


Books on this topic may be found in The Imaginative Conservative BookstoreReprinted with the gracious permission of Crisis Magazine.

Print Friendly
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."
11 replies to this post
  1. One problem that arises abreast the situation described in the article is that the people (and their representatives) loose all sense of what constitutes the public good.

    All taxation is the appropriation by law of other people's money towards some end specified by law. In republics, this taxation (like all aspects of government) must recieve consent at the ballot box. Furthermore, as Republics must treat all citizens equally before the law, it is questionable whether any eventual tax ought to be levied on an unequal basis (i.e. "progressive" taxation). The majority may cite some notion of the public good as justifying this unequal taxation. Aside from being a problem in of itself (do the ends of public good justify the means of discriminatory taxation), the real issue becomes "what is the public good"?

    Recently, while taking a bus somehwhere in Warsaw, I looked out at a sign that read "new metro line being built here" and announced the cost of the endeavor as being the equivalent of 1 billion USD.

    I reminded myself that according to numerous accounts read over the years, the United States was spending 1 billion USD per day on military operations in Iraq.

    If Iraq had been a country mortaly threatening America, then this expenditure would perhaps be justifiable ( perhaps, because it is far cheaper to eliminate the enemy than to alter his soul as the nation builders attempt). As Iraq was never a mortal threat, but at worse a regional annoyance – well, it is little wonder America now collapses as other parts of the world prosper.

    Whatever one thinks of public transportation, the benefits of expanding and refining an underground metro in a major city are huge, for commerce of all kind is made easier. Since citizens must pay to ride the metro, some return on the investment is also plausible.

    Certainly this type of investment in infrastructure (railroads, airports, metro tunnels) and the subsequent boom in private and corporate investment that follows when cities facilitate mobility, is arguably a public good. The war in Iraq sadly is not for lack of a plausible causus beli.

    That takes us to what is perhaps the most warped view of the public good possible. What if, instead of a metro system for the city, tax dollars went instead towards the construction of a metro system for me?

    A special metro, with a nice salon like interior, with a route that starts at my door and goes only to my place of work and back?

    To ask whether this would be in the public good is to ask if pigs fly.

    And yet the American politeae as it stands now seems to look upon government spending in precisely this way. Tax money is to go towards direct and indirect handouts. Whether in the form of tax credits, welfare, foodstamps – the debate is always about entitlements.

    What about space exploration, science and technology, roads, bridges, public utilities? It is true that many of these goods can be provided more effectively by market forces, but my point here is that few would argue against their being qualified as public goods.

    Few that is, save the entitlement culture for whom the public good is a non issue, all that counts is their private good at the expense of the public treasury.

    Now, it is true that some have argued for welfare as a public good insofar as it guards against the formation of a revolutionary underclass. But given that we are living in times when half the population recieves direct welfare, do not pay taxes and revolution still fomments because such a system debases its own currency – I wonder whether this view of welfare as a guard against revolution need not also be reassessed.

    In the end, the culture of personal pride must be restored. People must feel shame at the prospect of needing welfare. It must not be treated as a normal part of life.

  2. Mr Rieth, as a mere footnote, the nearest we came to individualised public-sector transport was just over a century ago in London, when Lord Curzon decided to try out these newfangled omnibuses. He boarded one and instructed the conductor, "No 56, Carlton House Terrace" (where he wished to go). Some confusion resulted when his lordship was informed, regretfully of course, that buses had fixed routes.

  3. "The public good" is a debatable topic as Mr. Rieth points out. "The public good" is only found when individuals choose to pursue their own ends, not through government hand-outs, but through their own pursuit of interests. To accomplish this, government must "get out of the way" and allow choices, values, interests, and the market to work.

    For individuals to pursue their own ends, government must protect "rights" to life/property, otherwise, others might just decide what "the public good" another "should" be serving and abuse the rights of another's life/property.

  4. So, Angie, what are your "choices?" What are your "values?" What if they conflict with mine, and we live on the same street, and your kids "choose" to beat the hell out of my kids? I happened to grow up in a place, when my father was off to war, and the father of a kid up the street had one ambition, and that was to have his son be the toughest kid on the street, and he beat the hell out of me every day until I took my baseball bat to the meeting. Is the "war of all against all" what you envision for the Good Society, or do I have to beat the hell out of your kids to get some peace?

  5. I don't know what you are trying to "get at" with your example, John Wilson.

    I am responding to what has made for prosperity and liberty in our nation. "Interventionism" is not what libertarians traditionally believe to be "their interests".

    Contracts are the "rules of engagement", because they are mutually negotiated, beneficial and respectful of "another's right" to pursue their interests….

  6. John, of course, prosperity is good. Cooperation with others with similar interests/values is the means to the end of seeking our own interests/values. Mutuality, which is negotiated in contracts is business lingo. And mutual benefit is how business deals are made. So, I don't know why you infer "our own ends is the mean" is a bad thing!!

  7. Even Hume and Smith saw need for certain "public goods" to solve the 'free rider' dilemma; navies and roads and such. Neither believed that self-interest was sufficient for civilisation and order. they just had a (sensibly) short list. how things get out of hand, and how best to contain them, is well-described in Eamonn Butler's free book on Public Choice Theory (google it for download). there are no perfect solutions in life, but the Public Choice scholars hold the US Founders and Constitutions in high regard.

  8. Prosperity, like equality, is only a condition, not a Good. Seeking our own interests/values is simple greed, and is entirely contrary to the central message of Christianity and several of the other great world religions. Contracts exist because of Original Sin–which is not to say that contracts are in themselves bad (they are necessary, like government)–and you are not necessarily bad because you seem to think that pursuing our own ends is the rule of life. I do say, if that is the rule, good luck.

  9. I disagree that Prosperity is only a condition and not a Good, because one works for an incentive. Christians just believe that one should work for nothing and seek "heavenly rewards" (God). One can work for incentives and not be greedy, otherwise there is no such thing as self-interest.

  10. s masty, thank you for the book referral.

    "Self interest" cannot be labelled "good or bad" as it "just is", even when it is unrecognized. Everyone seeks their own interests within their own values systems. Civilization does affirm "self interest" in negotiated contracts. This is treating both parties as equal self interested players…..

Please leave a thoughtful, civil, and constructive comment: