Libertarian History/Philosophy

Nathaniel Branden, RIP, and The Pursuit of Happiness

Pursuit of happiness intersects with political freedom


Libertarians and others have wondered why Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence concludes its explicitly incomplete list of unalienable rights with the pursuit of happiness rather than property. The website states,

Unfortunately, Thomas Jefferson himself never explained his use of the phrase "pursuit of happiness" in the Declaration of Independence. However, he was almost certainly influenced by George Mason's Virginia Declaration of Rights(adopted June 12, 1776), which referred to "the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety."

I don't know if that is true. George H. Smith, an authority on such matters, is skeptical. Jefferson himself, who was accused of plagiarism in his lifetime, said, "I know only that I turned to neither book nor pamphlet while writing" the Declaration; he sought, he said, only to achieve "an expression of the American mind." In other words, the ideas were thick in the air of his time. That Jefferson never explained why he chose the pursuit of happiness over property may indicate that he thought the choice was too obvious to require explanation.

Smith offers an entirely plausible and satisfying explanation for Jefferson's omission of property:

Aside from the fact (one often overlooked) that Jefferson wrote "among these" when referring to the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — thereby indicating that his list was not exhaustive — I point out that to have mentioned "property" as an inalienable right would have proved confusing to eighteenth-century readers. At that time "property" could refer to the moral power of dominion over one's body, labor, actions, conscience, and so forth; or it could refer to external objects. In the former sense, "property" was regarded as an inalienable right, but this was not true of "property" in the narrow, more modern sense of the term. We can obviously alienate our external property by transferring ownership to other people.… Thus for Jefferson to have included property in his partial list of inalienable rights would have been highly ambiguous, at best.

(Read more from Smith about this matter in his "The Philosophy of the Declaration of Independence, Part 2." A podcast of the essay is here.)

Carol V. Hamilton claims that Jefferson found the phrase the pursuit of happiness in John Locke's An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689). But explicit copying seems unlikely in light of what Jefferson said and Smith's research. It is true, however, that Locke, sounding very Greek, wrote,

As therefore the highest perfection of intellectual nature lies in a careful and constant pursuit of true and solid happiness, so the care of ourselves, that we mistake not imaginary for real happiness, is the necessary foundation of our liberty. The stronger ties we have to an unalterable pursuit of happiness in general, which is our greatest good, and which, as such, our desires always follow, the more are we free from any necessary determination of our will to any particular action, and from a necessary compliance with our desire, set upon any particular, and then appearing preferable good, till we have duly examined, whether it has a tendency to, or be inconsistent with our real happiness: and therefore till we are as much informed upon this inquiry, as the weight of the matter, and the nature of the case demands; we are, by the necessity of preferring and pursuing true happiness as our greatest good, obliged to suspend the satisfaction of our desires in particular cases.

Locke refers here not to political liberty but to a freedom from inner compulsions. It's only a short step, however, from thinking about that kind of freedom to thinking about the freedom from compulsion presented by other people, including those who constitute the state.

The binding together of "perfection" (virtue, or excellence, in the Greek sense) and liberty (internal and external) with the pursuit of happiness is noteworthy.

Which brings me to Nathaniel Branden.

This has been a rough year for the freedom movement. We've lost five luminaries: Leonard Liggio, John Blundell, Gordon Tullock, Tonie Nathan, and now Nathaniel Branden, at age 84.

Branden, of course, became known to the world as the man who helped systematize and present the philosophy dramatized in Ayn Rand's novels, especially Atlas Shrugged. The Objectivist movement became an integral part of the budding libertarian movement in the late 1950s and '60s. After his break with Rand, Branden moved from New York City to Los Angeles, where he made a name for himself through a series of books about the role of self-esteem in the pursuit of happiness, work he had begun while he was Rand's associate.

I'll have nothing to say here about the biographical details of the two that have attracted so much attention over the last 40-plus years. Nor will I explore what I believe are epistemological and ethical shortcomings in Objectivism. (But I will again recommend Roderick Long's Reason and Value: Aristotle versus Rand [PDF].)

As important as these matters are in particular contexts, if they are the only connections in which one thinks about Rand and Branden, then one has missed the forest for the trees. In my view, both made important contributions to our understanding of the human enterprise, and these contributions should not be ignored or devalued because of personal or philosophical flaws. As for the personal flaws, moreover, we should not rule out the possibility of redemption, which in my estimation Branden went some great distance to achieve.

I did not know Branden well, and I can recall seeing him lecture in person only twice. In 1970 or 1971 Branden dramatically returned to New York City for the first time since his falling out with Rand to give a public talk. I drove with a friend from Temple University in Philadelphia, where I was an undergraduate, to see him speak. He did not disappoint.

He and I spoke on only a couple of occasions, in Washington, DC, thanks to our mutual friend Roy Childs. On one of those occasions I drove Branden back to his hotel, probably the only time we spoke one on one. In later years I saw him at FreedomFest and Libertopia, but we did little more than say hello.

A bit of background is in order. I did not "discover" Rand and her novels until after her break with Nathaniel and Barbara Branden. Rand's "To Whom It May Concern" (December 1968), in which she declared the break and denounced Nathaniel for fabricated financial improprieties, was my first contact with the formal Objectivist movement. I had not heard of the Nathaniel Branden Institute (NBI), except perhaps through advertisements bound into the paperback editions of the novels, to which I paid scant attention. For this I will always be grateful, since it meant I was immune to the trauma that students of Objectivism suffered when the Brandens were expelled.

At some point, though, I started reading back issues of the Objectivist and Objectivist Newsletter, where I encountered Branden's writings on psychology. They struck me as sound and sensible, and I wanted to know more. Then in 1969, Branden's publisher released his long-awaited The Psychology of Self-Esteem, chapters of which had appeared in Objectivist publications. I devoured it.

When I said so, my more orthodox senior Objectivist friends, who were suspicious of Branden, looked at me askance. I know I worried them when they asked what I thought of the book and I replied, "It gave me the same satisfied feeling I experienced from his earlier [approved] writings." I immediately realized that a report on my emotional reaction to the book was notwhat they wanted to hear. (One of Branden's most important contributions would be to show that the Objectivist inclination to disparage emotions constituted a gross misunderstanding of human nature and thus a misapplication of Rand's philosophical fundamentals.)

At any rate, I read all of Branden's books, and I learned much from each one. I believe I assimilated Branden's teachings about the role of reason, emotion, self-respect, and self-confidence in the pursuit of a happy, successful life. I would say his work has served me well. But enough about that.

Over the years Branden spoke to many libertarian audiences about the intersection of political freedom and the pursuit of happiness through self-assertiveness, self-confidence, and self-responsibility. (Here is a video of one such talk.) The connection should be obvious. In a free society, self-responsibility and the things that make it possible are critical because, among other reasons, you cannot compel anyone to take care of you, even if you would want that.

Self-responsibility should not be mistaken for the caricature of atomistic individualism propagated so frantically by ignorant or dishonest critics of libertarianism and Objectivism. As an admirer of Aristotle, Branden, like Rand, understood that we are social animals, which means that we cannot actualize our immense potential except through close contact with other human beings. (Indeed, language, the vessel of conceptual thought, is an emergent social institution.) Thus no conflict exists between self-responsibility and the need for a wide range of emotional and other kinds of relationships. On the contrary, individuality and sociality are two sides of the same coin.

I would sum up Branden's opening move in his political thinking this way: What's the point of freedom? Why be a libertarian?

We want and need freedom not because it is right and good in itself in some simple deontological sense, but so that we may live happy lives. An essential ingredient of happiness is self-direction: the setting of one's life course, the choosing of worthwhile goals, and the striving to achieve them. To the extent one is not free, to the extent that the state or anyone else is able to commandeer your resources and time without regard for what you want to do with your life — to that extent you are deprived of essential control over your life. You are dehumanized, treated like other people's property.

That was Branden's political message.

In his obituary for Branden, Reason's Brian Doherty wrote, "And as he told me once, to the extent that a libertarian society requires self-realized, self-responsible people — and he believed it did — he considered his work in psychology to be an extension of his interest in political liberty."

I do not believe, and I do not think Branden did either, that the elements of human excellence, or virtue, are prerequisites of a free society, although they certainly could help determine whether people want one. (How much resistance to the libertarian view is motivated by a fear of freedom and self-responsibility?) I, like Albert Jay Nock, believe that freedom is the great teacher of virtue because one cannot force others to suffer the consequences of one's irresponsible actions. So we need not begin with a population of virtuous people before a free society can be achieved. Nevertheless, a free and vibrant society will have its best chance to remain such only when people cultivate the psychological traits that Branden elaborated.

I'll close by saying what, regrettably, I never said to him, "Thank you."

This article originally appeared at the Future of Freedom Foundation.