Liberty and the Indissoluble Union Between Virtue and Happiness

May 9, 2019 Updated: May 12, 2019


The jobs report for the month of April demonstrates that the U.S. economy is doing really well—in fact, it’s amazing. Unemployment is at a 50-year low, and private-sector wages are up 3.2 percent from just a year ago. Those are impressive numbers.

Nevertheless, with a Republican in the White House, Democrats are forced to preach doom and gloom, and complain that things have never been worse, at least until 2020.

For example, failed gubernatorial candidate for Georgia, Stacey Abrams, said in her response to President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address, “Under the current administration, far too many hard-working Americans are falling behind, living paycheck to paycheck.” And she repeated House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) mantra that “the Republican tax bill rigged the system against working people.”

Such fake news is always corrosive to politics—no matter who is peddling it—but the Democrats’ recent embrace of policies such as Medicare for All and canceling student loan debt threaten our very capacity for self-government. There are circumstances in which recourse to policies such as these might be prudent. But those circumstances are not even on the horizon right now. And such sweeping policies not only make our whole economy more dependent on the government, but they also ensure that generations who come after us are less capable of maintaining the degree of self-reliance necessary for exercising self-government.

When our economy is objectively strong—as it is right now—we would be wise to relearn the virtues of industry and frugality, to use our prosperity to increase our capacity for self-government, not undermine it by increasing our dependence on government.

The American Founders on Virtue and Happiness

The ultimate goal we seek individually and collectively is happiness. The Father of our country, George Washington, set forth in his first inaugural address his hope that “the foundations of our National policy will be laid in the pure and immutable principles of private morality.” Washington based this hope on his belief that “there is no truth more thoroughly established, than that there exists in the economy and course of nature, an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness.”

In this country, which respects religious liberty, the founders understood that people would have various religious motives for practicing private morality. They also believed, though, that citizens could find common ground to practice certain virtues because they believed it was self-evident that those virtues would generally produce earthly happiness and render people fit for self-government by making them self-reliant.

In “Poor Richard’s Almanac,” Benjamin Franklin urged his readers to avoid economic dependence. “Disdain the chain,” he wrote, “preserve your freedom, and maintain your independency.” His teaching was simple: “be industrious and free; be frugal and free.” Franklin believed the virtues of industry and frugality are generally necessary for building a foundation for a successful pursuit of happiness.

My wife and I recently converted the abstract notion of our current student loan debt into a physical chain of paper links. After every payment, we say a prayer of gratitude to God and tear away a link. We are learning to “disdain the chain” and maintain our independence, and we find the progress thrilling.

The Left’s Attacks on Virtue and Happiness

Knowingly or not, certain efforts by the political left effectively undermine our capacity for self-government by corrupting the connection between virtue and happiness and by seeking to redefine what it means to be free.

I don’t remember hearing much about privilege while I was growing up, but now, I hear the word all the time. The political context in which people use the word privilege often connotes some kind of undeserved or even unjust gain.

The message is clear: It doesn’t matter if you earned your rewards through hard work and sacrifice; if you’re a member of a privileged group, you don’t deserve to enjoy those rewards. In effect, this attack on all forms of privilege—arbitrarily assigned, of course—seeks to corrupt the “indissoluble union between virtue and happiness” that Washington praised, for it denies to those who have justly earned certain privileges the right to enjoy them.

Furthermore, policies such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s (D-Mass.) proposal to cancel substantial portions of the student loans owed to the federal government subtly reshape how we understand freedom. Her plan will only be successful if she can convince voters—44.7 million of whom have student debt—that because the system is rigged against students, they should not in truth be obligated to pay their debts. The federal government’s involvement in student loans has obvious faults, but canceling the debt won’t fix them.

The founders believed that happiness depends on maintaining a degree of self-government, and self-government depends on exercising private virtue and responsibility. They understood the combination of these three things as liberty.

But Warren’s plan—like many other products of the welfare state—seeks to infantilize citizens by relieving them of the responsibility that alone provides them the opportunity to dignify their choices. Liberty is thus conflated with license, and self-government is exchanged for dependence. In such a state, we may experience pleasure from time to time, but—if Washington is right—nature will keep happiness beyond our grasp.

The American founders understood that practicing private virtues like industry and frugality frees us from dependence and makes us into citizens capable of self-government. Such self-reliance allows us to enjoy the liberty this country provides to those who work to attain it.

This opportunity—not some gaudy, wealthy lifestyle—is the real American dream.

Clifford Humphrey is originally from Warm Springs, Georgia. Currently, he is a doctoral candidate in politics at Hillsdale College in Michigan. Follow him on Twitter @cphumphrey.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.