Note: This article was inspired by “The Origins of the Pursuit of Happiness,” a 2015 article by Dr. Carli Conklin, Associate Professor at the University of Missouri School of Law. Her book-length exploration of the pursuit of happiness is forthcoming from the University of Missouri’s Studies in Constitutional Democracy series. Order a copy.
As an entrepreneur, July 4th is sort of like Christmas for me.
Christmas in the sense that it’s a celebration of one of my personal beliefs: that the individual is capable of unlimited things.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…” —The Declaration of Independence, 1776
With those words, common people broke free from traditional thinking. They removed the barriers to individual purpose that had held humans back for millenia.
Many don’t know that Jefferson’s words above weren’t actually written by him, but were originally penned by John Locke with a very specific change. Locke had said, “Life, Liberty and Estate,” because estate was the word for property in his time.
One can only guess how many PhD theses have been written on this one change in phrase.
But why did Jefferson say “pursuit of happiness”? Did he imagine a family celebrating July 4th at their summer home smoking Mangalitsa pork in a Big Green Egg?
The term likely came from Sir William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England: “That man should pursue his own true and substantial happiness.”
What Blackstone and Jefferson are after here is the concept of natural law. The state and judicial system can define common law and procedural law. They should. But the Declaration of Independence basically said procedural law (the King) is subservient to Natural law.
This is yet more significant in its exclusion of “estate.” Jefferson and his gang were property holders. In those days, properly meant slaves. “Happiness” in this context goes as far back as Aristotle and the concept of “Eudaimonia,” or wisdom.
The power of the individual
This is where it all connects back to entrepreneurs…
Individuals are the best judges of their own needs, wants, desires and values. Individuals and societal welfare are maximized when people are free to make their own decisions (see John Locke).
To assure human happiness, we need to create an environment of individual autonomy that allows the personal judgement to flourish. We need to operate within a context of natural, common and procedural law, guided by the sum total of individual wishes, whims, dreams and wisdom.To assure human happiness, America created an environment of individual autonomy that allows personal judgement to flourish. Natural, common and procedural law still persist, but they are tempered and guided by enshrined protections of the freedom of individuals to express unique wishes, whims, dreams and wisdom.
Jefferson’s realization was that society is not a product of property or government. Government and property are a product of individual liberty and natural law.
Which brings us to one of my favorite economists, Friedrich Hayek.
I need to admit, first, that we celebrate Hayek’s birthday on May 8 as a company holiday. Hayek made a unique observation in his essay, The Use of Knowledge in Society,
“The peculiar character of the problem of a rational economic order is determined precisely by the fact that the knowledge of the circumstances of which we must make use never exists in concentrated or integrated form but solely as the dispersed bits of incomplete and frequently contradictory knowledge which all the separate individuals possess.”
Hayek taught us that not even experts can presuppose the answer. That individuals each possess different knowledge, desires, wants and inspirations.
It takes risk in pursuit of wisdom, and reward, to uncover the unknown opportunity. It is inconceivable to expect a single person, entity, bot, or borg, could comprehend the myriad of signals that produce the needed inspiration.
What are we pursuing?
The ethic of the entrepreneur, and perhaps the Declaration of Independence itself, is about an individual taking risks. They’re deriving insights from others, translating collective inspiration into a common endeavor and moving the ball forward.
When they succeed, they create value for society.
When they fail, they create wisdom for future entrepreneurs to absorb.
Each pursuit is unpredictable in its own right, but the sum total of free individuals pursuing wisdom is ultimately much greater than any king could ever wield.
In the end, we created a nation. A nation that, through entrepreneurship, has created unprecedented and unimagined levels of productivity, for ourselves and for the world.