Posts tagged with: the pursuit of happyness

The Roman philosopher Cicero once said to his son, “You are the only man of all men whom I would wish to surpass me in all things.” The form this sentiment takes collectively is a good summation of the universal hope for humankind. We want our children in particular, but also the next generation and the world more generally, to be better off than we are.

We want them to surpass us “in all things,” not simply in terms of material wealth, but also with respect to their development as whole human persons, body and soul.

Earlier this week I had the privilege of participating in a panel discussion hosted by Common Sense Concept at AEI on the current debt crisis facing America, focusing particularly on applying the concept of “intergenerational justice” to the problem. You can view the entire event at the AEI page. A highlight of my comments appears below:


One of the things we talked about during the discussion was the idea of “opportunity” and how it relates to intergenerational justice. Cicero’s sentiment assumes this idea: his son needs to have the opportunity to surpass him, to be better than him “in all things.”

I think of how this applies to the hopes and dreams of so many Americans, not particularly for themselves, but for their children. Consider the people you know or stories you’ve heard about parents who work extra shifts and second, sometimes third, jobs to put away money so that their child can have the opportunity they have never had: to go to college, to get a well-paying, rewarding, and fulfilling job, and to see flourishing on an intergenerational scale.

It reminds me of the film “The Pursuit of Happyness” that came out a few years ago. This is a story based on the real-life experiences of Chris Gardner. One of the takeaways from the film version is that so much of what drives Gardner to work harder, to never give up, to continually seek a better life, is that he is doing all this for his son. Lending the portrayal special poignancy, in the film Gardner and his son are played by Will Smith and his own son, Jaden.

A great deal of what we are talking about in this ongoing conversation about the public debt crisis and intergenerational justice centers on this idea of opportunity. Ryan Streeter mentioned it explicitly in our discussion, and Ron Sider’s explication of what the biblical picture of “economic justice” is like could be summed up as focusing on guaranteeing opportunity across generations. In his essay, “General Biblical Principles and the Relevance of Concrete Mosaic Law for the Social Question Today,” (appearing in the latest issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality) the theologian Herman Bavinck describes the Old Testament polity as one in which “the basic necessities for a life of human dignity were made possible for most Israelites.”

The fiscal reality today, however, is that we are rapidly facing a situation in which the coming generations will be constrained from having the opportunity to surpass us because of the profligacy of federal spending, the deleterious commitments to transfer wealth from younger and poorer workers to older and wealthier Americans, and the simply unsustainable levels of spending pursued for decades by politicians.

This is why in the key economic factor to consider in the debates about the ethics of intergenerational justice is that of opportunity cost. As David Henderson writes, the concept’s “virtue is to remind us that the cost of using a resource arises from the value of what it could be used for instead.”

The Social Security system is perhaps the most obvious example in this regard. It is the single largest piece of the federal budget ($695 billion in FY 2010), taking large sections of income out of the checks of working Americans every pay period, that could otherwise be put to a variety of other uses. Depending on the situation, some of these uses might be more immediate and temporary (like food and rent) and others might have longer-term implications (such as investment and savings).

When we ignore opportunity cost and its intergenerational implications, we are constricting the range of options available to current and future generations. We are, in fact, infringing on their rights to liberty and “the pursuit of happiness.”

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Friday, April 13, 2007

In the film The Pursuit of Happyness (review here), there’s a scene where Will Smith’s character arrives late for an interview with a stock brokerage firm and has no shirt on. The conversation goes like this:

Martin Frohm: What would you say if man walked in here with no shirt, and I hired him? What would you say?

Christopher Gardner: He must have had on some really nice pants.

Well, what would you say if you interviewed someone and they wore a suit looking like this?

Aaron Igler shows off the suit to thunderous applause. Photo: Paul Adams


This is the end result of a project undertaken by Kelly Cobb, an educator and designer at Drexel University. The task was to try and create a suit using only materials and workers within a 100-mile radius. Here’s the full story from Wired (HT: Mises Economics Blog).

As the piece relates, “Cobb’s locally made suit turned into a exhausting task. The suit took a team of 20 artisans several months to produce — 500 man-hours of work in total — and the finished product wears its rustic origins on its sleeve.”

Seriously, it looks like an Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer suit or something. The exercise is really an object lesson in “the massive manufacturing power of the global economy.”

For most of us, that’s a good thing. Others, though, might think that “how far removed we are from what we wear” is an overwhelmingly negative feature of modern existence.

But if nothing else, the 100-mile suit should offend your aesthetic, if not your moral, sensibilities.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Monday, February 5, 2007

A favorable review of Will Smith’s The Pursuit of Happyness in Liberty: “The Importance of ‘Happyness’.”

And just in case you thought that libertarians have no appreciation for social bonds whatsoever, here’s the conclusion of the piece: “Underlying this free-market philosophy, however, is a film that is unabashedly moving, demonstrating that true happiness does not lie in the accumulation of property alone, but in having someone to share the joy of good fortune. Without someone to tell, someone to care, good fortune is just a pile of paper.”

Check out my review of the movie here.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, January 31, 2007

In this week’s Acton Commentary, I review Will Smith’s latest movie, The Pursuit of Happyness, which stands as an extended argument underscoring the truth of conservative values. This may sound like an improbable anomaly given the traditional political, ethical, and social allegiances of Hollywood, but the power of the story lies in its basis in fact, the real-life story of Christopher Gardner. This in turn prevents it from being appropriated as a tool for liberal political ideology.

The movie’s depicts American life as a meritocracy, and after opening in mid-December, the film has grossed over $150 million domestically. The movie is up for only one Oscar, however, and this is perhaps a testimony to the incompatibility of the movie’s message with mainstream Hollywood political culture. Indeed, Will Smith is nominated for Best Actor, but this is perhaps as much due to the respect he commands from his peers as it is for his role in this particular film.

The Pursuit of Happyness grossed more than any of the nominees in any other of the major categories, most by a large margin. But what the Hollywood elites can’t see, the American public can, and they’ve voted with their feet.

S. T. Karnick reviews the film here, be sure to check it out. And you can read my review in full here.

This review has been crossposted to Blogcritics.org.