Wednesday, July 4, 2012

My Faith in America

When plotting to hoodwink White Snake's husband, after he has unfortunately seen White Snake in her true form, White Snake and Green Snake agree, in Mary Zimmerman's The White Snake, to tell him that he didn't see what he saw.  "Believing is seeing," they say.

So it is with these United States of America.  If you believe that "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness" is a good thing then you will look out at America and see that it it good.

Or you could believe that human Life is a disease on this fragile Earth, that Liberty is nothing but selfish individualism, and the Pursuit of Happiness is nothing but feckless hedonism.

The way you look at America depends on how you look at the world.

There are two modern beliefs that dominate men's minds today.  One is the Invisible Hand of Adam Smith.  It argues that, in order to meet our selfish needs, humans must work to satisfy the needs of others.  On this view the "inalienable rights" of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness are mild and beneficial, for they urge us to cooperate with our fellow humans, but without the yoke of compulsion.

There is another modern faith; it is the Exploitation theory of the left.  On this view society is irretrievably broken.  The laborer cannot earn the full fruit of his labor because its full value is siphoned off by his employer and only a fraction returned to him in wages.  Workers are therefore coerced into working for others to stave off the pangs of hunger and experience their work as alienation from their true metier.

Notice how these two faiths essentially agree.  If you want to eat, you have to work.  The Invisible Hand idea says that this is a good thing, for it encourages selfish individuals to be social.  The Exploitation idea says it is a bad thing because it forces people into working for others.

So with the American troika of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.  Human life is a blessing, according to Christians, or a curse, according to environmentalists.  Liberty is a blessing, according to libertarians, or a curse, according to socialists.  The Pursuit of Happiness is all-embracing, according to optimists, or narrowly selfish, according to pessimists.

But we Americans, those of us that believe in American exceptionalism, believe in Life, because that is what living things are for, to live life and produce new life.  We believe in Liberty, because Liberty is creative, expansive, generous and good, while compulsion is cramped, narrow, brutish, and short.  We believe in the Pursuit of Happiness, because that upward, hopeful gaze is the very essence of what it means to be human.

Arthur C. Brooks in The Road to Freedom argues, from modern social science, that the Pursuit of Happiness has two components.  The first is the pursuit of meaningful work and earned success.  Not just any success, for unearned success doesn't make us happy.  The other component is giving.  If you want to be happy then you have to give.  This is not new.  The Methodist creed was: Work all you can, save all you can, give all you can.

Now go back and look at the two modern world views: the Invisible Hand view and the Exploitation view.  What do you think?

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