In Pursuit of Happiness


In Pursuit of Happiness, by William B. Scott, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1977, 244 pp., $12.50.

I doubt that many Americans will conclude that a book entitled In Pursuit of Happiness is about the right of property. Two explanations come to mind. First is the unfortunate but pervasive notion that property has to do more with selfishness than with happiness. Second is the limited recognition given in our schools to the background and significance of private property in American society.

A student of mine relates an experience in playing a game in which the participants are required to identify the missing term in a familiar phrase. The hostess read, "Life, liberty, and…" to which my student immediately responded "property." Much to her surprise, this answer was derided, while shouts of "pursuit of happiness" rang forth. Not a single person could be persuaded that "property" was an appropriate rounding out of the trilogy. This was confirmed by the official reply recorded in the game book. No other answer was given, although the phrase containing the word property appears twice in the Constitution, in the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments.

A similar reaction would not have occurred during the nation's formative years. No one knows why Jefferson changed John Locke's trilogy in drafting the Declaration of Independence, but clearly it was not because the property right lacked support. Thus, Gouverneur Morris, an influential delegate to the American constitutional convention of 1787, expressed these sentiments during that conclave: "Life and liberty were generally said to be of more value than property. An accurate view of the matter would nevertheless prove that property was the main object of society." Several other delegates agreed that the preservation of property rights constituted the principal purpose of government.

While not all 55 delegates to the convention shared these views, it is apparent from reading the records that the vast majority gave a high priority to private ownership. There is no evidence from that source that anyone was shocked or distressed by Morris's position. This should not be surprising, since such views were dominant in the 18th century. Many leaders of the French Revolution actually favored perpetuation of a private property system.

Because of the dearth of information concerning this most basic and important right, I welcome the appearance of William B. Scott's In Pursuit of Happiness: American Conceptions of Property from the Seventeenth to the Twentieth Century. This book is a well-written history valuable as an overview of the changing ideas and attitudes that have shaped this society's notions of property rights. It contains neither startling revelations nor challenging new philosophy. Nevertheless, it succeeds in the rather modest but worthwhile task of educating readers who might never have given much thought to the history of property rights.

Scott includes interesting discussions of the views of some prominent Americans supporting (Field, Sumner, and Moley) and rejecting (Bellamy, Veblen, Croly, and Dewey) a society oriented on private ownership. According to the first group, the legal status of property reflects on the authoritarianism of the State. The collectivists' refusal to accept this correlation may explain their position on property. They did not seem to understand that property rights can be eliminated only by a government powerful enough to destroy all other liberties.

Earlier generations better comprehended the role of property in a free society. During the 17th and 18th centuries this right was considered an essential defense against authoritarianism; it signified freedom, autonomy, independence. The right to possess and enjoy property was of the utmost importance, for on it was based the exercise of most other rights. It meant that people could work, produce, invent, invest, and create, secure in the knowledge that, except for taxes, they could retain the rewards of their labor and ingenuity. Even if the government did demand their property, people would be fairly compensated.

The priority of rights in our day is far different. When President Carter demands universal observance of human rights, the common assumption is that these rights relate to political and intellectual liberties—that is, those concerned with the right to speak, write, pray, and petition—and the protection of an accused from unjust punishment. As far as I am aware, the president nowhere includes property or economic liberties in his demands.

Nevertheless, countries that do not preserve property and economic liberties will never be able to honor freedom of speech, press, and religion. Anyone who owns property that the State may confiscate will be exceedingly hesitant to voice any opinion or engage in any conduct that might displease those in power. If American society ever reaches this dismal stage, we will have completely lost the pursuit of happiness. The trilogy, regardless of its ending, will no longer be a valid description of this country's goals.

Bernard Siegan is professor of law at the University of San Diego. Copyright© 1979 by Bernard H. Siegan.