As America turns 225 this July Fourth, Thomas Jefferson’s stirring words from the Declaration of Independence will ring out once again across our cherished land:
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.
While life and liberty permeate daily discussion, Americans rarely debate the pursuit of happiness as a principle. Nevertheless, it was a cornerstone of the system of individual freedom and limited government that the Framers established in 1776. This 18th-century notion should be revitalized as a core governing doctrine for the 21st century.
Politicians also should heed these words from Jefferson’s first inaugural address in 1801: “A wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement.” Alas, paternalistic officials routinely limit personal freedom to protect Americans from themselves rather than from others.
Consider the 44 states that annoy adult motorcylists by making them wear crash helmets.
“If I’m riding in rural Virginia and I haven’t seen a car for hours, I shouldn’t have to wear a helmet unless I want to,” says Michael Caputo, a Washington, D.C. publicist and sometime biker. “It shouldn’t be illegal for me to do so. My helmet, my choice.”
Fair enough, but if Caputo rode head-first into a weeping willow, taxpayers should not have to finance his medical care. Helmets are optional for privately insured adults in Louisiana and any Floridian or Texan over age 21 with at least $10,000 in coverage. These sensible states leave motorcyclists freer while boosting their personal responsibility to face the potential consequences of their actions.
In contrast, Congressman Bill Goodlatte (R., Va.) is expected to reintroduce legislation in July to ban Internet gambling. Similar language passed the Senate unanimously in 1999 before Goodlatte’s companion measure stalled in the House last year. It promised up to four years in prison for anyone operating an online casino.
Goodlatte decried “the crime, bankruptcy, and family problems that come from gambling.” So why not padlock Las Vegas? Better yet, prohibit California’s government-run lottery. Californians in block-long lines last June 23 purchased up to 54,000 tickets per minute while chasing a $141-million jackpot. The odds of victory were 41 million-to-one, a long-shot unworthy of a Mob-run numbers racket. Such state-operated lotteries typically prey on lower-income citizens.
Still, adults should be free to roll the dice digitally. Yes, at least 25,000 Americans belong to Gamblers Anonymous, but some 2.25 million, Bear Stearns estimates, somehow survive on-line betting.
Uncle Sam, meanwhile, often viciously polices what adults may ingest. As Milton R. Copulos explained in the July 2 Insight magazine, armed FDA SWAT teams raided the offices of 16 “compounding pharmacists” in August 1998 for dispensing alternative remedies that Washington disfavors.
The U.S. Sentencing Commission’s new federal penalties treat the sale of Ecstasy more harshly than cocaine. Selling 200 grams of this psychedelic (about seven ounces) now costs five years in prison. Previously, at least 3,000 grams (6.6 pounds) triggered such a sentence. To receive the same punishment, one must move at least a pound of cocaine or 220 pounds of marijuana.
For adults who partake, Ecstasy often produces euphoria. True, there were nine Ecstasy-related fatalities in 1998, according to federal statistics, even as that year’s alcohol-induced deaths stood at 19,515. Naturally, Seagrams’s CEO will not spend tonight in jail.
Is a life filled with motorcycles, gambling, and Ecstasy worth living? Perhaps humans should devote their precious time on Earth to more wholesome quests for virtue. Priests, ministers, and rabbis argue as much. Many follow their advice, and maybe more should do so.
But proselytizing is one thing. Prosecution is another. The dance-club patron who raves on Ecstasy to techno music until dawn no more deserves handcuffs than does the obese chain smoker who watches other Americans frolic with rats on NBC’s Fear Factor. So long as one puts only oneself in harm’s way, “I’m pursuing happiness” should be incantation enough to ward off constables and congressmen.
The words of the author of America’s birth certificate remain as worthy as they were just before this republic turned 40. “No man has a natural right to commit aggression on the equal rights of another,” Thomas Jefferson wrote on June 27, 1816, “and this is all from which the laws ought to restrain him.”