…inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. Declaration of Independence
Led by the two most conservative members of the Supreme Court that begins its new session today, some Americans consider themselves originalists. That is to say they believe we should be guided by our founding documents, mostly the Constitution but assumably also the Declaration of Independence. It was in that document, drafted by Thomas Jefferson, that the founders listed among our inalienable rights the pursuit of happiness. It’s a somewhat puzzling inclusion especially set against its seemingly more weighty partners life and liberty. Sure we’d all like to be happy, but taken at face value it might be construed as a superficial or hedonistic objective. But that’s only if we read the word narrowly. If we substitute well-being for happiness, as many academic researchers do, then the right takes on much greater substance.
So Americans have an inalienable right to well-being, something that stands right there with life and liberty. And that brings me to one of the underlying issues in the upcoming election. Specifically it makes me think both of Mitt Romney’s 47% remark and the Right’s general assault on the safety net that has come to be so integral a part of our social fabric. What may be instructive in that regard was recent research described in a New York Times Op-Ed by University of Southern California economist Richard Easterlin. He and some colleagues did a study of data measuring the sense of well-being exhibited by Chinese in the wake of a shift to a free-market economy and an attendant rise (for some) in wages and living standards.
What the researchers found was that there was “no evidence that the Chinese people are, on average, any happier… (analysis of survey data). In fact, … they are less satisfied than in 1990, and the burden of decreasing satisfaction has fallen hardest on the bottom third of the population in wealth. Satisfaction among Chinese in even the upper third has risen only moderately.” Easterlin attributes the decline to the loss of what Chinese called their “iron rice bowl". He defines this as "permanent jobs and an extensive employer-provided safety net, which included subsidized food, housing, health care, child care, pensions and jobs for grown children.”
To be sure China was a traditional communist country with socialist norms, incorporating the kind of safety net that went far beyond anything we might have had or even wanted. But taking a broader and more generalized view, the study suggests that whatever safety net we have has been a consequential contributor to our right of well-being. Looking at the angst being experienced by many of today's Americans the parallels are unmistakable. The decline of unions that protect workers, the virtual disappearance of company loyalty to its employees and the inaccessibility of healthcare, among others, produces an unease that is becoming more palpable every day.
As pressure grows for so-called entitlement reform, legislators on both sides of the aisle might do well to consider our Declaration of Independence, most particularly the inclusion of well-being as a fundamental and intrinsic right. Part of what bothers the Chinese of course is the growing disparity between those who have reaped huge benefits from the free-market economy and those who still live in relatively third-world conditions but have lost much of their safety net. That condition is relatively the same as we are encountering here in the United States, not to mention in other Western democracies.
The point is that we dismiss the vital importance of the safety net at our own peril, that the gap between the 1% and the 99% should be seen a matter of national security concern. When Romney disses, inaccurately so, the 47%, he not only misunderstands the basic fabric of America and our Declaration of Independence, he plays with fire. We, too, should keep that in mind when going to the polls, but more importantly thereafter. This isn’t a matter of “guns and butter” but of the life we want for ourselves and our children. It's a matter of inalienable rights.