Taxes, Rights, and Responsibilities: Part 1

Rights and freedoms language insist that we have the right not to fund the programs that make us unhappy (although Jon Stewart pointed out to Ms. Schaal that his taxes also go to things he does not support, and that this is the nature of government). It's this rights and freedoms language that has ignited the groundswell of populism we call the Tea Party, although there is much in this way of speaking that has always been compelling to Americans.

Our foundational documents are written in rights language, and they shape many of our beliefs at least as strongly as our faith commitments. The Declaration of Independence tells us that all men (which was what the Founding Daddies meant then; let's expand it to say "human beings") are created with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This last term, by the way, was Jefferson's change from John Locke's original emphasis on life, liberty, and property in the Second Treatise on Government (although the rights to life, liberty, and property are nonetheless enshrined in the 5th and 14th Amendments to the U. S. Constitution).

But here's a vital thing about the supposed basis of all this rights and freedom language: "Happiness" to Jefferson didn't mean happiness the way most of us understand it now: broadly, the right to do what makes me happy, whether that is accruing capital gains, owning and operating a Jet Ski, or living unhindered with my beloved in a cozy cottage just for two.

Jefferson plucked the happiness phrase from (there he is again) Locke, who in Concerning Human Understanding was speaking of the Greek and Roman understandings of happiness not as hedonism, but as the Good Life. 

The Good Life, not the High Life.

Aristotle, in the Nicomachean Ethics I.8 said that "the happy man lives well and does well; for we have practically defined happiness as a sort of good life and good action." Jefferson himself once summed up the ancient Epicurian philosophy he so admired by agreeing that "Happiness [was] the aim of life" and "Virtue the foundation of happiness."

This Good Life Aristotle, Epicurus, Locke, and Jefferson were all speaking about was not primarily about pleasure or freedom, as we typically imagine; it was about virtue and correct action. It was not about getting something good, but about doing good and being good.

For the Founding Fathers, happiness was at least as much about responsibility as it was about opportunity.

Which brings us back again to highest goods. Aristotle wrote in Politics that all unions are formed in order to attain some good that cannot be gained individually, and that "the highest, most authentic good is the objective of the most authentic of all partnerships [the state]" (Politics I.1).

I think most of us would agree that government should undertake the highest, most authentic good. But I think that the reason most of us would agree with these statements is because we disagree on what that highest, most authentic good might be.

Last week as we began to explore the question of highest good, I asked you to consider what your own highest goods were, since whatever we accept as our highest good is going to shape our lives as we try to attain it.

It will also shape our notions of what our institutions, including our government, should or should not be doing.

If you're into social justice, you might think that the good the government should create is to help those who are less fortunate; if you've been reading a lot of Ayn Rand, you might think that the highest good is a government that protects its citizens from foreign invasion and gets the hell out of the way of the geniuses of industry; if you're a fan of religiously-affiliated governance, your highest good might be the enforcement of a code of behavior that looks a lot like what you believe is recorded in your sacred text.

Which of these highest goods leads to a more just world, to more compassion, to more faithfulness?

Well, that's where our disagreements—and our continued conversations—come.

Next week we'll go further into that conversation about underlying beliefs. I want to explore what the Christian tradition has to say to us about law, rights, and responsibilities, and I offer Micah 8:6 as a preview, since it seems to capture the concerns of both the priestly and prophetic strains of the Hebrew wisdom tradition with which Jesus was familiar:

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the LORD require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

May the God who gives us all that we have, rights and responsibilities alike, bless and keep you until we meet again.

2/17/2011 5:00:00 AM
  • Mainline Protestant
  • Faithful Citizenship
  • Mainline Protestantism
  • politics
  • Rights
  • Responsibilities
  • Taxes
  • Christianity
  • Greg Garrett
    About Greg Garrett
    Greg Garrett is (according to BBC Radio) one of America's leading voices on religion and culture. He is the author or co-author of over twenty books of fiction, theology, cultural criticism, and spiritual autobiography. His most recent books are The Prodigal, written with the legendary Brennan Manning, Entertaining Judgment: The Afterlife in Popular Imagination, and My Church Is Not Dying: Episcopalians in the 21st Century. A contributor to Patheos since 2010, Greg also writes for the Huffington Post,, OnFaith, The Tablet, Reform, and other web and print publications in the US and UK.