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Individual Happiness and the Minimal State

Edward Younkins

Dr. Younkins is professor of accountancy and business administration at Wheeling Jesuit University, Wheeling, West Virginia.

The Founding Fathers held the view that government, while deriving its power from the consent of the governed, must be limited by the rights of the individual. The purpose of government was to maintain a framework of law and order within which individuals can pursue their own self-interest, subject to the forces of the competitive marketplace.

The framers believed in a higher, natural law over and above man-made law, as the ultimate authority of right and wrong. By deriving the authority of the state from God, the nature of legitimate political authority is thus qualified and non-absolute. Citizens retain inalienable rights, endowed by their Creator, upon which neither the state nor anyone else should trespass. Out of this emerges the idea of a government as a social institution set up voluntarily by men to defend their rights to individual action.

In addition, men were viewed as flawed creatures. Mortal rulers are not only finite in knowledge and ability but also corruptible by temptations to power. An effective means of mitigating the effects of human errancy is to decentralize and disperse power.

Freedom and the Pursuit of Happiness

The purpose of the state is not to help people either materially or spiritually to pursue their vision of happiness—that is the role of individuals, communities, and voluntary associations. The proper function of the state is no more than to provide people with the preconditions for their own happiness-pursuing activities. This simply means preventing interference from others.

Happiness is not something that can be given to people as wealth can be—they must achieve it through their own efforts. Happiness accompanies or stems from the exercise of one’s individual human potentialities, including talents, abilities, and virtues. Happiness is that which we want for ourselves and for others. Happiness cannot be given by government nor by anyone else. When people are in control of their own actions and are free to face challenges, they tend to be happier. When the government attempts to supply happiness, it reduces individuals’ control over their lives and deprives them of challenges and the chance to develop a sense of competence. People will be happiest if they are given freedom instead of money or goods. The good life, therefore, is the life spent in pursuit of the good life. Happiness requires the opportunity to build self-respect based on efficacious individual choice and action.[1]

The state cannot govern a large number of people regarding the attainment of individual happiness since it is impossible to be personally knowledgeable of the moral character and other attributes of a large number of people. The state should therefore confine itself to matters that do not require personal knowledge about or by its citizens. Its role should be limited to protecting man’s natural rights.

The individual needs to be free in order to follow his own particular inclinations and tastes. Each person must also be free to judge, evaluate, and reflect upon, without constraint, his past and present choices and commitments to decide if they really do represent his best interests. It is imperative that the state stay out of this process. Neutral concern on the part of the state encourages us to adopt policies that enable all equally to determine and pursue their own conception of the good life.

The Common Good of the Political Community

The good of the individual person is inextricably related to the common good of the resulting political community. The common good of that larger community involves the protection of each person’s natural right to liberty through which he can freely pursue further duties and actions.

The common good of the political community is not a single determinate goal that all men must attempt to achieve. Rather, it is the implementation and protection of man’s natural right to liberty. The natural right to liberty is a necessary precondition for the possibility of morality. There can be no morality without responsibility and no responsibility without self-determination. In order to provide the maximum self-determination for each individual the state should be limited to maintaining justice, police, and defense and to protecting life, liberty, and property.[2]

The Growth of Government

Until the early 1900s, the United States had a limited government. But, since the Great Depression, both attitudes toward government and the interpretation of the Constitution have changed, resulting in an increasingly large government. When government goes beyond its legitimate limited role by gathering additional powers to itself, it invades other spheres and becomes interventionist and coercive. Any coerced, unfree exchange is alien to, and outside of, the system of capitalism. Government initiatives such as minimum-wage laws, rent control, international trade barriers, price supports, health and housing subsidies, and bailouts of corporations negate the requisite pricing and allocation functions of the market, causing increased economic disorder. Every unwarranted intervention of government into the free market causes more problems to which interventionists respond with even more intervention.

There has been a slow but steady erosion in the protection the Constitution provides its citizens against arbitrary government power. This breakdown is due largely to changes in the prevailing attitude towards government—the fear of government power has been largely supplanted with the idea that discretionary government power should be used to attain social (i.e., distributive) justice. Consequences of the reduction of the constitutional limits on the use of governmental power include the growth of government; the rise of a transfer society with its many opportunities for personal achievement through political activity; an undermining of self-reliance, market discipline, property rights, and the work ethic; the replacement of an ethic of freedom and responsibility with an ethic of dependence; and a decline in individual virtue, civil society, and economic welfare.

We need to reaffirm the spiritual, political, and economic wisdom of our Founding Fathers. This means a return to a government that is limited to establishing and to enforcing standards of just conduct under which free individuals will pursue their own goals, values, and happiness.

1.   Charles Murray, In Pursuit of Happiness and Good Government (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988).

2.   See Chapter 4 in Douglas B. Rasmussen and Douglas J. Den Uyl, Liberty and Nature (LaSalle, Ill.: Open Court, 1991) for a thorough discussion of the common good of the political community.

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