Opinion

The right to an enjoyable existence: life, liberty, happiness and COVID-19

Thomas Jefferson was a man of many paradoxes. Publicly proclaiming the primacy of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” in private he insisted upon their mutual incompatibility. The “tree of liberty” was to be reared on death, to prosper in soils nourished with “the blood of patriots and tyrants”.

For many, this tree never bore the fruit of freedom. Liberty was the birthright of white men alone. Thomas Jefferson, the “Apostle of Democracy,” could neither reconcile in theory nor put into practice the inconsistent triad of democratic rule.

Nor can the modern U.S. claim to better conserve the life, liberty, and happiness of all than any other Western state. Quite the opposite.

If a gun-wielding, God-fearing, racialised republic was once preferable to empires built on bloodshed and bondage—if a white man’s democracy was more desirable than despotism—the world has moved on from these binary options.

That is, the world minus the United States, whose national identity was forged in a series of confrontations with illiberal régimes—the British Empire (1775–83), the Confederacy (1861–5), the Axis powers (1941–5), the Soviet Union (c1945–91).

There is, as a result, a false but accepted dichotomy between American-style freedom and tyranny. Having consistently fought on the side of liberty, Uncle Sam sees himself as its supreme embodiment. Rather than reflect on his own supposedly flawless freedom, his instinct is to counterpose it to an unfree alternative—hence the “new cold war” with China.

This disinclination to self-criticism has both fossilised and sanctified the U.S. Constitution, which is accordingly the world’s oldest in continuous operation. The word “unconstitutional” has acquired a moral value, as if the Founding Fathers—men of their time—were infallible prophets pronouncing timeless truths.

U.S. political culture is consequently littered with anachronisms: the Tea Party movement, Second Amendment sanctuaries, white nationalism, climate change denial, politicoreligious fundamentalism. Trapped in an echo chamber stretching from San Francisco to Boston, the inhabitants of the fifty states have been outstripped by their Western peers in the universal pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness.

Let us consider this “Western” world, defined for our purposes as North America, the antipodes, the Nordic nations, the British-Irish Isles, and continental Europe west of the old “iron curtain” (microstates not included).

Of the twenty-one sovereign states incorporated in this description, only in the U.S. is capital punishment legal, life expectancy 80 years or under, or the homicide rate more than 2 per 100,000 (in the U.S. it is 5).

Perhaps most damningly, U.S. authorities incarcerate a larger proportion of their citizens than those of any other nation—not just in the West but in the world. So much, it seems, for the “land of the free.”

As to the third of Jefferson’s founding principles, according to this year’s World Happiness Report, residents of the U.S. are less satisfied with their lot than all westerners outside of Belgium and the Mediterranean region.

In fact, if we rank our twenty-one countries by life expectancy, Human Freedom Index, and happiness score, the average position of the United States (seventeenth) beats only that of Portugal (nineteenth).

Lest the Brits among us be tempted to get on their high horse, I should point out that old Blighty is scarcely more able to stand the comparison: the U.S. may be twentieth of twenty-one, but the U.K. comes a less-than-impressive seventeenth.

This is hardly surprising for a country that glamourises empire, that glories, perversely, in suppressing its own free movement, as if this somehow amounts to a heroic self-liberation. HM Government, meanwhile, is guilty of wilfully imposing “great misery” on its constituents for the last ten years. The Conservatives in power are responsible for Grenfell, for the Windrush scandal, for Europe’s worst “excess death rate” due to COVID-19.

Indeed, the responses to the current crisis—both popular and governmental—are what prompted this article. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness have rarely been more in conflict than in the age of coronavirus.

Governments, for the most part, have prioritised life and suspended personal liberties so that more might live to enjoy them.

Cue a chorus of indignation from libertarians invoking—in opposition to the lives of others—their right to move around freely, their right not to be vaccinated, not to be tracked-and-traced, not to wear a facemask.

The tension between personal liberty and the preservation of life at large is by no means a novel phenomenon. In the U.S. at least, nearly 40,000 lives were lost last year alone because the freedom of the gun-owning individual to bear arms apparently trumps the right of others not to be shot dead. How many more, I wonder, has the invisible hand struck down by decreeing poverty inevitable and universal healthcare evil? Free-market fetishism is a silent yet serial killer.

Where, then, are we to locate the correct balance between life and liberty? Well, to adopt Dan Edelstein’s terminology, the “transfer regime” of rights (to which most modern states subscribe) holds that we surrender certain liberties so that governments might, in turn, guarantee our lives and our remaining freedoms.

The powers conferred upon police forces are the product of one such transfer. In relinquishing our right to act in specific ways, and in consenting to forfeit our freedoms if we do, we expect our lives and liberties to be upheld in return. A state whose law enforcers end the very lives they pledge to protect—whose police officers deprive citizens both of life and of liberty—is, manifestly, a failing state. George Floyd’s murder is symptomatic, therefore, of a systemic disease in the U.S. body politic.

If ever there is a contradiction—real or perceived—between the liberties we retain and our fundamental right to life, the latter will generally displace the former. The threat to our lives, looming larger in the collective consciousness, will be tackled at the cost of our civil liberties. This is how governments react to terrorist attacks, and it is how they have dealt with coronavirus. A dead populace, after all, can be neither free nor happy.

It doesn’t, however, follow that those whose lives are safe will necessarily be freer or happier. Indeed, the states of the West most adept at prolonging life are no more competent to secure liberty and happiness than those where life is at greater risk. Returning to our list of twenty-one countries, there is nothing approaching a meaningful relationship between, on the one hand, either homicide rate or life expectancy, and, on the other, freedom and happiness scores. The closest we come to any kind of correlation is when comparing the first and last of these variables—but, even then, Spearman’s rank coefficient has a “very weak” value of just 0.106.

Notable examples of this lack of correspondence include, among others, Spain and Italy. Despite having the second- and third-highest life expectancies and the joint second-lowest homicide rates, Spaniards and Italians are respectively nineteenth and twentieth in terms of their personal happiness. Or, conversely, Finland and Denmark—fourteenth and nineteenth by life expectancy (and joint fifteenth based on homicide rate), but, going on happiness, first (Finland) and second (Denmark).

Which begs the question: is this a zero-sum game? Does a prevailing concern for the preservation of life necessarily detract from its quality?

A pro-lifer would contest the very validity of this question: it is immaterial, they would say, as all life is sacred.

To this I would counter that the people of Finland—whom expert opinion regards as the world’s happiest—have the most liberal abortion laws of any “Western” nation. Or, in the same vein, that neither Switzerland (third) nor the Netherlands (sixth)—both countries where euthanasia is famously accessible—feature far from the top of the world happiness table.

Where, in the end, am I going with all this? If I’m honest, I don’t really know. But the crisis in which we currently find ourselves has induced many, myself included, to reflect on the duties of government, and to stress that we are all owed happiness as well as life and liberty.

For “life” in the abstract is not an end in itself. It is not enough simply to be alive: we must insist, moving forward, that governments afford us the means to live. We must demand that they look after not just our physical being but our emotional and material wellbeing. We must push them to invest the effort that went into saving lives in ensuring, post-pandemic, that these lives are worth living.

Compassion is one thing that has not been in short supply amid the tragedy and adversity. It is now incumbent on governments to translate this into positive social outcomes.

Alessandro Giacometto

Alessandro Giacometto is going into his third year at St John's College, where he reads History and French. He is about to embark on his year abroad in France, beginning in Biarritz and then moving on to Paris. When not in Oxford, he lives in Wokingham, near Reading.