Principle #2: Natural rights are bestowed by God
"...A wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government…” (“Thomas Jefferson’s First Inaugural Address,” Thomas Jefferson, March 4, 1801)
Free people are happy people, when strong personal mortality guides their choices.
The earliest American definition of liberty—stated frequently by the Founding Fathers—is about constraints on personal actions: if I don’t hurt anybody else, I should be free to pursue my own will. As Thomas Jefferson put it in his first inaugural address, “A wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned.” Despite more recent attempts to expand our understanding of freedom to include claims on one another or on government—FDR’s 1941 State of the Union speech, for example, which mentioned “freedom from want”—about two-thirds of Americans still define freedom in terms of doing what they want, being able to make their own choices, or having liberty in speech and religion.
Understanding freedom is a matter of no small importance. The Founders believed that it was one of at least three fundamental rights from God, along with life and the pursuit of happiness. These three rights are interrelated: not only does liberty, of course, depend on life, but the pursuit of happiness depends on liberty. In fact, evidence shows that freedom and happiness are strongly linked. But what kind of freedom makes Americans happiest? And what can government best do to promote freedom and help us pursue happiness, as is our inalienable right?
Thomas Jefferson stands out as the 19th century version of a modern libertarian. He saw the functions of the government as very limited indeed. His view of limited government as only a function of restrain men from injuring one another did not square with his political opponents of the day who saw more legitimate uses of government power for the general welfare. What stands out about Thomas Jefferson was his influence on the nation pertaining to the establishment of the establishment clause that restricted the federal government from the establishment of a church religion and establishing a strong wall of protection for freedom of religion and conscience. Thomas Jefferson wanted Americans to exercise moral freedom for the betterment of society but he was more comfortable leaving those judgments in the hands of individuals then placing them in the hands of the government, with the limited exceptions of basic Judeo-Christian based laws against doing harm to others.
Is it ever appropriate for the government to abridge moral freedom? Obviously it is, when my moral license unreasonably harms you. Then it becomes a question not of protecting me from myself but of protecting you from me. Thomas Jefferson made this point explicitly when he said that “to close the circle of felicities,” the government had to “restrain men from injuring one another.” ~ Arthur C. Brooks
But in cases where all can agree that our private, immoral behavior does not harm others, our happiness is best served with rules in our private lives that constrain our morality and protect us from excess in moments of personal weakness. The recipe for happiness is a combination of individual liberty, personal decency, and moderation. And government protects our freedom best when it forgoes infringements on our moral choices but vigorously defends our right to restrict these choices ourselves.
If the importance of liberty to happiness sounds obvious to you—as obvious as the importance of life to liberty—it’s probably because you’re an American. In many countries, you would find yourself fined, imprisoned, or worse for asserting your right to vote, worship, or even open a business as you wished. America is an oasis of happiness-producing freedom in a world that generally doesn’t believe that citizens can handle freedom and doesn’t trust them to try.
As Americans, we understand that people can be entrusted with freedom, which is why we guard it so jealously. But happiness requires that we also use freedom responsibly—which means, both as individuals and as a nation, balancing abundant private liberty with healthy personal morality.
I highly recommend Arthur C. Brooks essay answering these questions.