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The Pursuit of Happiness
Paul Staley examines a key phrase from the Declaration of Independence.

By Paul Staley

A few years ago I was in a hotel in Berlin that had placed a copy of the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights in every room. I didn't read all of it, but ever since then, when July 4th rolls around, I remember that trip because Article 3 of the UN Declaration states, "everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person."

Those last three words are jarring to American ears accustomed to the familiar cadence of our Declaration of Independence. It's like having the lyrics of a familiar song changed. What happened to my pursuit of happiness?

The differences between these two versions say so much. The U.N. document may appear to be setting the bar a little lower, selecting essential rights from a list of our most basic needs. But one can also see the tragic arc of history here. The confident self-assurance of the Enlightenment in which men proclaimed their freedom from superstition and tyranny has, by the mid-20th century, been replaced by an awareness of our vulnerability to persecution and annihilation.

There is, as well, a subtle but powerful distinction about the role of government. Security of person, our Constitution's Second Amendment notwithstanding, is shared collectively; it is something that government provides. In our Declaration, however, government has stepped back. It allows people the room to pursue what they want.

It is this elevation of the individual that is so quintessentially American. After all, we are not merely free to pursue this thing happiness, but the goal itself is something that each of us would define differently and experience subjectively. And debates on public policy often focus not on collective effect but infringement of individual prerogative.

But there is an even more profound difference. The U.N. Declaration says that we all have a right to be secure. Thomas Jefferson, on the other hand, wrote that we had the right to go after something. He asserts the right to a quest, not a guarantee. The key word in his phrasing is "pursuit" and not "happiness." And on this Fourth of July in particular it feels like his formulation was prophetic: collectively we are not a happy bunch, but individually we are definitely engaged in the pursuit.

With a Perspective, I'm Paul Staley.

Paul Staley is a real estate professional.  He lives in San Francisco.

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