Property and the pursuit of happiness

As we celebrate Independence Day, I’ve been meditating on the inalienable rights that Thomas Jefferson wrote about: “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” John Locke, a British philosopher who was a huge influence on the American Revolution, had coined a slightly different phrase: “life, liberty, and property.” So my first question was: why did Jefferson change the wording?

It’s a highly debated question among historians. A cynical speculation would be to say that the rebel colonists wanted to be able to confiscate the property of their loyalist neighbors who interfered with their pursuit of happiness. But one of the things historians point out is that happiness and property had different meanings in that time than they do today. 18th century political philosophy defined society in terms of social contracts, trying to imagine what categories of benefits that hypothetical isolated Robinson Crusoe individuals would gain from organizing societies together. (Of course the flaw in this thought process is that we are always already born into a social context that we don’t get to choose from the vantage point of an autonomous Cartesian tabula rasa but anyway…)

The pursuit of happiness does seem like sort of a strange right to guarantee. Couldn’t I say that filing tax returns or sitting in the DMV waiting room deprives me of my “right” to pursue happiness? If that truly is a basic right, then how would we avoid ending up with a society of narcissistic dilettantes? How many young men today are stuck in perpetual adolescence because they’re addicted to the “pursuit of happiness” in porn and video games?

Of course it needn’t have a sordid hedonistic connotation. Augustine considered the goal of Christianity to be happiness (or beatitude) which is fulfilled most perfectly by delighting in God. Our problem, as CS Lewis put it in the Weight of Glory, is that we aren’t pursuing happiness vigorously enough. Paradoxically, the forms of “happiness” that are most oppressive and sinful are often the result of doing what we think we’re “supposed to do” to fit in with the other hippies, yuppies, or whomever by fulfilling their expectations for what happiness looks like. No one is happy when everyone is trapped in the neurosis of trying to mimic each other, which is the social state that our marketing industry is so great at exploiting and perpetuating.

A society that really pursued happiness would have a lot better music, because making music would be about loving beauty, not getting a “hit” and making it to the big time. We would probably work three or four days a week instead of five and earn less money but have less unemployment. We would let our kids play instead of anxiously watching them to figure out what five extra-curricular activities can best develop their talents and help them get ahead. We would spend our time together in public gardens that everyone shared the joy of cultivating.

A society whose raison d’être is acquiring more stuff can never produce happiness because happiness is not something you can own; it is only something you can enjoy. Ownership only produces neurosis; the only enjoyment we can receive from possessions is in showing them to and sharing them with others, and yet we work slavish hours to buy nice things to put in our homes that we never open to anybody. The only thing we can possess without neurosis is the spirit of Christ because He cannot be spilled or broken since He is eternal (a rough paraphrase of Augustine’s argument in On Happiness).

Speaking of possessions, what about John Locke’s inalienable right of property? That makes more sense as a right. If that weren’t a right, then anybody could walk into my house and take anything they wanted at any time as long as they didn’t tie me up (liberty) or kill me (life). Of course, I could also say that one of the greatest sources of immorality in our culture is the illusion private property creates that our lives are private so we don’t have any accountability to the community outside our walls as long as we don’t bother or burden anyone else.

Privacy is the reason that we pursue happiness in sleazy, greedy ways, whether it’s sneaking down to the fridge at night, looking at pictures on the Internet that we shouldn’t, or compulsively hoarding whatever it is that people compulsively hoard. If there were no privacy, then a lot of immoral behaviors would be nipped in the bud right there.

Our sense of privacy is also the reason that American society does not consider it unjust to allow others to suffer when I could do something to help them. It has made us into a society that is most aptly described by Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). We are not our brothers’ keepers. Whatever we do for people outside our castle walls is not considered a duty but an occasional generosity that we engage in often enough to assure ourselves that we’re not Ebenezer Scrooge.

But what if we take out the word private? What if I think of property differently as a piece of God’s creation that I am responsible for hosting? One of the original arguments for abandoning feudalism, in which the king owned the land and the people who farmed it, was that thousands of owners would take better care of God’s creation than one owner.

My home is not a place for me to use selfishly; it is a place where I am responsible for making guests feel at home. That should be the primary function of the home; and it was for most of human history. Even today, homes in most societies other than ours are constantly filled with neighbors and friends. It’s certainly that way in every Latin American country I’ve been to. I should see myself as the host of a building that belongs to God on a piece of land that belongs to God.

As a host, I am responsible for making sure that no violence happens in my home, that the kitchen is well-stocked, that the furniture doesn’t get stolen because I left the door wide open, but this is all about responsibility, not entitlement. Based on what I have read of John Locke, Adam Smith, and other 18th century minds, I have a feeling this is closer to the way they understood property than the view of our radically libertarian age today in which I am God inside my castle and outside of it I have no responsibilities.

Imagine if we saw our property primarily as a place in which to entertain guests whether for meals or overnight stays. What if our greatest concern was the contribution that our property could make to the public life of our neighborhood? Would we be the house with the best climbing tree or the soccer goal or the swimming pool? Social media has been a disaster for our sense of hospitality. My wife and I have been planning to have an open house for our neighbors for over three years now. But given the choice between picking up the clutter and diving into the pristine serenity of cyberspace to escape the piles, I almost always choose the latter. So the house stays messy; we can’t have people over; and our neighbors remain surface-level acquaintances.

I’ll never forget a week my third year of seminary that I spent in the home of a complete stranger in Cincinnati, Ohio while attending a Christian Community Development Association conference. She was about 80 years old and she opened her house to three men she didn’t know who needed a place to stay. The night I got there I had to stay up all night writing a paper so I missed my ride into the conference that morning. When I woke up, my host asked me if I would like to drive her recently deceased husband’s car. When she saw how shocked I was, she told me that it belonged to the Lord and that she was so honored that it could be useful to someone. That incident is one of the most decisive ways in which God has spoken to me through the actions of another person.

One of the little ways in which I do get to use my property for the common good is through my garden. Every spring I grow hundreds of little plants from seed and then I bring them to church to give away to the preschoolers and their families. Over the summer, I take baggies of tomatoes and peppers to my neighbors. Honestly I’m not trying to brag. It’s just what makes my heart giddy. Sharing garden veggies is one of my deepest joys in life; and my grief is that what I do is so meager. I could be sharing so much more joy than I do.

It is a joy to entertain guests and to share gifts with others. That should be the purpose of property. It is also a worthy means of pursuing happiness. But none of this makes sense as long as we have the wrong understanding of liberty. When I define freedom in the libertarian sense of being able to make my own choices, then property becomes entitlement and happiness becomes whatever frivolity I choose as long as I chose it. If I understand freedom to mean the liberation from neurosis that I gain when I encounter everything in life as a gift from God that I enjoy without the entitlement of ownership, then I can learn that the best pursuit of happiness is gained by offering my property as a gift to my community of which I remain the host but to which all are welcome as guests.

12 thoughts on “Property and the pursuit of happiness

  1. Excellent! We have found changing the term from “entertaining” to “having over” has been freeing. We don’t have to put on a show. Just provide the test tube for good chemistry to take place. Provide the games, cards, yard games, walkds and ask people about their stories and watch what God does. And make sure everyone who comes over helps clean up so we will do it again!

    • “And make sure everyone who comes over helps clean up so we will do it again!” Yes. Great thoughts. I’m preaching on welcome this weekend at church. This has been very helpful to work through.

  2. Morgan,
    To what extent is property an element of common grace necessary for people to get along apart from being born again? The danger to me seems to enter when Christians don’t embrace their differentness, or when they want to level the playing field by making everyone else act born again before they take up the Christian ethic.
    Also, privacy really is a problem, and I don’t think anyone has a right to it. Actually, I don’t buy into the whole “natural rights” business in the first place… But Adam Smith would have serious problems with “privacy” since it would limit the role of approbation through spectatorship. Unregenerate souls are best held in check by what others think of them. This goes awry in political settings, but in individual one-on-one settings your opinion of me is a large part of what keeps me from behaving badly. Reputation is also important in preserving good business dealings.

    • I’m not willing to be an anabaptist isolationist so I’m going to advocate for Christian ethics whether I’m talking about Christians or non-Christians. I don’t really do the common grace / 2 kingdoms thing. My audience and sphere of influence is mostly just going to be Christian anyway. Mostly I’m interested in weeding out secular libertarian values from the Christian ethos.

  3. As a Scouting Ministries Specialist, I once preached on the difference I noticed between the way we treat strangers when we are in our houses in the city, and when we are camping in the woods.
    When you camp, and a stranger approaches, it is a cause for celebration. You welcome the stranger with open arms and show them to the best seat at your campfire. You insist that he or she stay to enjoy your best cooking. You serve them first and give them the first shot at the seconds. In short, you treat them as a gift God has given you.
    In the city, if a stranger approaches the house, you consider calling the police. You might need to unlock the gun cabinet. You double check the door locks. If they were to actually knock on the door fear is your first response. You peep through a peep hole so you can see them and they can’t see you. The last thing on your mind is that this stranger is a gift from God.
    What do we do about it?
    I think the starting point is the realization that as a child of God even death cannot hurt you. We follow the man who conquered death by dying and rising. I think when my body dies I join him. In other words, my self in Christ is my real self. Focusing on that allows you to open your doors to the stranger. If no one can really hurt you, you have no enemies. And if, someday you are killed by some nut-case because you refused to “take precautions.” So what?
    In reality, that’s not really such a bad way to go. It beats the hell out of dying in your lonely room, all alone, or in a hospital after some group of doctors has milked your family for every dollar they could.
    I must fight against the messages of the marketplace: that I am never safe enough, when Christ means I am always safe, that other human beings are my enemies, when Christ means I have no enemies, that I must protect what is mine, when Christ means that what is actually mine can never be taken from me, and so needs no protection whatsoever.

  4. Great article. It’s very timely for me right now (for reasons I won’t waste your blog space on…).

    That said, I have a minor quibble. In our household, we play video games together and really enjoy the time spent together (and we play a variety of types of video games). We also do this when we have visitors (if they want to, of course).

    So video games are not all bad, though I could see how they could become an addiction, if they isolate you from others.

    • Good quibble. My boys play video games and it helps with their hand-eye coordination. I was taking a somewhat lazy broad swipe at a stereotype of young adult males.

      • Here’s a “counter-quibble”, so to speak, about a topic that is a bit of a digression. Notwithstanding the value of increased hand-eye coordination, my 11-year-old son—like MOST of his peers at school—is quite literally ADDICTED to online computer games (most of which involve one figure shooting or destroying another). He craves online “play dates” more than real, live play dates. The loss or tragedy is in the absence of real socialization. With him (and many of his peers, according to parental feedback), this addiction is as real and problematic as any adult being addicted to gambling (I’ve had to physically drag him off the computer whenever his time-limit is up.) Every parent ought to read Richard Louv’s bestseller, LAST CHILD IN THE WOODS: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder (Algonquin, 2008).

  5. Nice post… and a healthy antidote to the narcissism of our day and culture. I suspect that Jefferson’s notion of ‘happiness’ was something akin to a general feeling of well-being, or what the Greeks called eudaemonia (?).

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