“The care of human life and happiness … is the only legitimate object of good government.” – Thomas Jefferson, 1809.
When Jefferson and company wrote the Declaration of Independence, they did not use the common term at the time, “life, liberty and property.” Instead, they used the phrase “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” But it would be hard to make a case that the people of the United States are happy today.
This year’s World Happiness Report (it’s amazing some of the things we poll on) tells us that the world’s happiest countries are these, from one to ten: Switzerland, Iceland, Denmark, Norway, Canada, Finland, Netherlands, Sweden, New Zealand, Australia.
I’m not sure if that tells us anything. The United States placed 13, but I wonder if that ranking has held since the election. Last week was the week when people often say, “Next year’s got to be better.” I didn’t hear that and I don’t think many people believe it.
The election of Donald Trump is the most obvious reason for unhappiness, but the U.S. was dropping in the happiness index years before the election. Forbes magazine columnist Christopher Helman wrote of another survey, a “prosperity index”: “The U.S. has slipped in the areas of governance, personal freedom, and most troubling, in entrepreneurship and opportunity. The slide in that final category, according to the report, ‘is due to a decline in citizens’ perception that working hard gets you ahead.’”
With all of the anger that has been expressed and exhibited since the election, there has been very little attention devoted to how we make a troubled country well.
When I was growing up, people had the time to be involved in their communities. Most families and households not only survived but thrived on one income. I don’t remember ever hearing the term “latchkey kids.” Part of a community was families who knew each other because they had meals together.
Things are very different today. Parents in the United States are driven by the need to stay financially afloat and scholars say they are the most unhappy parents in the developed world. Most important, they are in no position to get involved in public affairs and politics so that the terrible choice the nation was offered in the 2016 presidential election does not happen again. Who has the time or money to get involved? Citizenship suffers.
Instead, we hear constantly about how “they” are at fault. The THEY at issue varies from group to group, person to person. And that kind of vague blame-seeking gets us nowhere.
Only a third of the nation thinks the United States is headed in the right direction, according to the Rasmussen poll. People with the money are considering leaving. “How we advise them depends on their objectives,” according to Wealth Management. “Does the client merely want to live in another country for a limited number of years, or do they wish to permanently resettle? Is the client’s desire to move tax-motivated? Does the client want the flexibility to travel back and forth between the United States and their new country of choice?”
Our government has a seemingly incessant need for outside enemies and has become skilled at demonizing various groups, nations, and religions so that we will accept wars. Our politicians thrive on division and have become skilled at pitting us against each other so that we will accept a level of polarization that verges on insanity.
Even the quote with which I began this piece would likely prompt disagreement over whether life and happiness are legitimate concerns of government.
Citizenship and common concerns are both in danger. They are things that give a society a sense that we are in this together. That is a precious thing to have and a terrible thing to lose.
Dennis Myers is an award-winning journalist who has reported on Nevada’s capital, government and politics for several decades. He has also served as Nevada’s chief deputy secretary of state.