NYLS Journal of Human Rights


Linda M. Keller


This article explores the economic dimension of the Pursuit of Happiness in the Declaration of Independence and how it undercuts the notion that economic and social rights under international human rights law are somehow un-American. The United States government seems to believe that economic rights are not truly human rights, but rather radical Cold War era entitlements advocated by communists. The minimum-needs conception of the pursuit of happiness suggests that economic rights are enshrined in a document considered part of the foundation of democracy.

Part I evaluates the rejection of economic rights in the United States, focusing on international commitments. Part II turns to the Declaration of Independence, specifically, the Pursuit of Happiness. Drawing on eighteenth-century political thought, it asserts that the pursuit of happiness establishes an inalienable right that includes an economic dimension.

Part III argues that the right to pursue happiness entails a concomitant governmental duty: the duty to facilitate the pursuit of happiness by providing minimum economic means. Although the Declaration of Independence has not been interpreted as legally enforceable, the principles of the Declaration form the basis for the government and must be followed by it. The article shows how this obligation to ensure basic economic rights is also contained in various international instruments. Far from being foreign to American political thought, this duty is provided for and must be fulfilled under the principles of the Declaration of Independence.

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