The Constitutional Utility of Being Useful



My Canadian friend Helga is amazed by the United States of America’s declared devotion to the pursuit of happiness extending beyond man’s basic needs. She has in a touching essay compared us with her socialist compatriots: Canadians are presumably somewhat boring for the lack of our energetic pursuit of happiness. I recall once again bits and pieces of her sentimental speech:

“It (the United States) is the only country I’m aware of that has articulated the right to pursuit of HAPPINESS… it recognizes that personhood has an emotional as well as PHYSICAL AND MENTAL component. An individual has the RIGHT TO emotional WELL-BEING and to seek to improve the quality of life. This goes beyond the right to live and have one’s basic needs met.”

I responded that the pursuit of happiness was well known overseas: that, for instance, the Philosophic Radical Jeremy Bentham and his Utilitarian colleagues made quite a fuss over the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Yet they found little use in discussing metaphysical, arbitrary, and capricious sentiments; not they were devoid of sentiment: they were merely being objective in an effort to come up with something everyone could appreciate. Moreover, I declared property to be the original ticket to real happiness in America. 

Helga felt I had callously disregarded her sentiments and that I had cynically taken her words out of context. Such was not my intention. It simply takes me quite awhile to respond at length to old themes in the brief New World overtures. When ‘The Helgalian Chronicle’ releases its last edition, I’m sure Helga will find her love of the United States of America fully justified. In the interim, may I recommend investing in real estate? For real property is the basis of material wealth. Remember, the word “property” is the name of one of our inalienable Rights in a rough draft of our Declaration of Independence; Jefferson later omitted it favor of the more sensible word for the revolutionary occasion: the euphemism, “happiness.” 

Overseas, the French did not mince words in their ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen’: 

“2. The aim of all political association is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man. These rights are liberty, PROPERTY, security, and resistance to oppression.” 

Why prevaricate? Property is the basic bone of contention. Did not Proudhon proudly say that “Property is theft”, in answer to the capitalist property proposition?

As for Happiness in France, Liberty is the sine qua non of French happiness. In fact, happiness would be an understatement in a French bill of rights. French liberty is defined as follows:

“4. Liberty consists in being able to do everything that injures no one else; hence the exercise of the natural rights of each man has no limits except those that assure to the other members of the society the enjoyment of the same rights. These limits can only be determined by law.” 

Even before those words were written, France, Great Britain and Spain took the liberty to participate in enormous land grabs in the Americas; the seizures were perfectly legal, in accord with the sovereign jungle rights of nations. The spread of the white man’s natural rights accelerated imperially in the late 19th century: by 1900 European civilization dominated the Earth. A fifth of the globe and one-tenth of its population had been overpowered. Nine-tenths of Africa was divvied up; France got the largest share, a land area twenty times the size of her national home. France was spreading her liberty in the Pacific as well, and in China where she took control of a quarter of its southern provinces along with a fifth of its population. Britain, not to be out done, asserted its exclusive interest in the Yantze basin with over half the population of the Chinese empire. Russia moved in too–already in 1864, it had taken over in Central Asia an area larger than Asia Minor. Imperial Germany’s interests were small in comparison to that of the other powers; still they amounted to over a million square miles in Africa and the Pacific islands, with a population of thirteen millions. The United States, quite busy with occupying its own territory, still contributed to the global spread of freedom, moving in on Hawaii, and declaring war on Spain for dominion over her insular jewels. The spread of white power was not merely for glory and wealth, it was a dutiful service to mankind. In fact, the whole imperial venture was unprofitable; nonetheless, white colonists in their struggle with their own masters taught “coloured” people how to fight for their liberties. The industrial-scientific revolution was no respecter of persons: Europe had unleashed a tiger on the world, a tiger that had sentiments of its own. (1) 

Jeremy Bentham saw the global revolution coming forth, and busied himself writing a constitution to ride the tiger anywhere. He did not constitute the divine metaphysical right of kings whose ruled was based on the arbitrary and capricious, personal nature of a tyrant; rather, he constituted a government based on equitable positive laws. That does not mean he was a cold-hearted calculating man who eschewed sentiment altogether; rather, he wanted objective reason for its organization. He knew very well that, when people have their own ground beneath them, they could afford to have fine sentiments. 

When I discussed Bentham’s greatest happiness principle, I certainly did not want to give Helga the wrong impression of the “bloody English”, or to reinforce Canadian prejudices already in place. Of course, when we reflect on Bentham’s early attitude we might jump to the conclusion that his utility related only to the physical or material aspect of man. Yet as a man he naturally had his arbitrary and frivolous sympathies and antipathies; for instance, when Aaron Burr stayed with him after getting out of Jefferson’s hostile sights, Bentham was excited by Burr’s scheme for Mexico: indeed, he was quite warm to the prospect of providing it with a sound constitution for positive law. No, Bentham was no cold fish, at least not in his later years–a time when even hard-nosed men do seem to take on feminine sentiments. Bentham even had his regrets about utility, or rather about his selection of the word “utility”, since its popular usage meant that happiness is in the having of intrinsically useful things. He regretfully said his choice of the word was “unfortunate.” 

Bentham certainly knew that the public welfare or the greatest happiness of the greatest number is not simply the sum of objects or property possessed, nor is happiness merely physical pleasure. Nonetheless, we should not blame him for refusing to resort to metaphysical speculations when growing numbers of people were being reduced to miserable circumstances by the industrial-scientific revolution of his day. Nevertheless, it is indeed unfortunate that the calculating element of moral utilitarianism espoused by the Radical Utilitarians became the sole principle of modern economics, leaving behind quality of life as incalculable except indirectly via the counting of property. 

In any event, We the People of the United States of America are a practical or utilitarian people. We might not all say “One for all and all for one,” but we do find the greater happiness of the greatest number in being useful to each other and to ourselves as individuals. 

We like to say an individual is an end in himself rather than merely a means, for people do not like to be used up and discarded. People on the whole are both ends and means: we are means to our ends. Philosophers for the sake of economy have simply said our general end is happiness or well being. The means to that complex end are various: they are the objects of desire both tangible and intangible which have greater or lesser value depending on how much we need or want them. We can make ourselves happy by possessing useful things, including abstract things like ideas or objects of thought. It a thing is not useful, then, we are not happy with it, and it is deemed worthless and discarded, ignored or forgotten. 

Hence there arises an economic relation between the individual subject and his perceived and conceived objects or world. Someone might say that only to the extent the world exists for him does it have any personal value at all. That might seem to be a tad selfish or self-centered to us in the pride of our generosity; nevertheless, we might generously observe that, without the world, a man is nothing; that, without consciousness of objects in contrast to his self-consciousness, a human being does not exist as such. In a sense the world is FOR the man providing he makes use of it. 

Man is a natural born utilitarian. We cannot survive doing nothing at all, therefore we are consigned if not condemned to lead productive lives. Since we cannot do without certain useful objects like food, we are inclined to consider our happiness as something intrinsic to the object itself. Still, since we might choose to starve ourselves to death to feed others, or to obtain a greater happiness in the other world where food is inutile, even the value of needed objects depends on subjective evaluation. Hence we encounter the philosophical problem of “utility” and several of the simpler concepts of modern economics. 

“Utility” and “happiness” were once almost synonymous. The old meaning of utility had the value, “happiness”, as intrinsic to a thing, something inherent in property. As the Italian economist Ferdinando Galiani put it in 1750, utility is “the CAPACITY of a THING to procure felicity.” 

Of course common sense then and now mixes up the intrinsic value of a desirable thing with the subjective evaluation of the user, but the intrinsic theory predominated thinking for a while. The association of the term “utility” with intrinsic value led to the expression “commodity fetish.” 

Portuguese voyageurs found primitives fondly fashioning bewitched fetishes (“that which is made in order to make”) for their magico-religious cults. But the primitives were not so primitive as we might think. The sociologist Auguste Comte considered fetishism a great leap forward from animal-like life to human life; he also thought fetishism was further advanced than theology along Great Being’s road to his scientific Positive Utopia. 

Be that as it may, we moderns have a commodity fetish, if we are to believe the sociologist Karl Marx. The theory of labor is based on intrinsic utility, the idea that an object possesses the labor value invested in its creation. 

Other economic thinkers, however, recognizing the subjective aspect of evaluation, came to emphasize “value in use” or use value. For example, William Jevons declared in 1871 that utility is “the sum of pleasure and the pain prevented” by the USE of a thing; that is, he rejected the idea that the exchange value of an object is the cost expended to produce it; value is instead dependent on the subjective evaluation of the user. 

The foregoing developments led to the economic utility theory itself, upon which is based the great synthesis of economic equilibrium: value depends on both the utility and scarcity of an object. That theory resolved the embarrassing paradox of the cheapness of the most useful goods such as water and the dearness of such things as diamonds. 

Advancing a little beyond the simple theory of utility, we come across another concept that should be remembered by every poor person who wants to be happier: the theory of diminishing marginal utility. For example, a hundred dollars means nothing to a multi-millionaire, but it means everything to you when you are flat broke; therefore he should give you the hundred dollars voluntarily or be taxed for it. This is a heartwarming concept for the majority, one that was enshrined as the progressive income tax clause in the Communist Manifesto. The power elite has doubts about its utility, and many would prefer to rely on voluntary charity instead. Private charity is a good sentiment, but it does not suffice to obtain the greatest happiness of the greatest number that Almighty God wants. Puritanical thrift accumulated enormous wealth, but then fell in love it, creating an unfulfilled need for even greater charity. 

That sort of love called “greed” is not good for the public wellbeing or welfare mentioned in the Preamble of the United States Constitution. At least my sentiments are against it and my reason follows in tow. I am one who suspects that “reason” is a part of passion, not something standing as aloof as we might think in order to haughtily rationalize our behavior; I feel reason is a passionate force that organizes greed. I’ve found that employing reason to plan my future is similar to reading the I Ching: I may not be aware of it, but what I really desire is already in my heart, hence I get the future and the fortune I actually wanted, sometimes instead of the one I had in mind. If I am willing to make concessions, my path and goal might be different, but I still have my destiny and deserts in any case. Confronted with resistance, my greed finds a better organization, never knowing for sure its finality. I believe that is what our social organization is doing as well: it is organizing greed that the species may survive. 

By the way, so my true colors may be known: my totem is the Jayhawk, the bird that flies backwards; I care only about the past because that is what I know, and I don’t give a damn where I am going because I know I’ll get there in a free state. 

Helga may not appreciate Jayhawker tactics, yet I feel most of the foregoing will not only assuage Helga’s concerns over my sanity since my escape from my ninety-day observation period Upstate, but shall also serve to persuade her that the socialist or sociological perspective is as emotional as emotion can be. Indeed, it is the noblest emotion of all in the United States of America, South of the Canadian border, where everyone is noble or “known”; where everyone is a monarch or “one ruler”; where everyone, from a Canadian perspective, is a Southern aristocrat possessing “arete” or excellence, the consummate virtuous and valorous character. 

Yes, if we are to speak sentimentally of the United States citizen, then we must speak of the Ideal Man–and as a matter of course I mean Ideal Woman when I say “man”, as symbolized by the first two letters of the noun. Unfortunately, the Ideal Man of the United States is today’s Forgotten Man, the man who was once the beacon and the envy of the world. He was a socialist in his individualism. He was liberally educated not in anarchy but in the freedom of responsibility. As the ideal individual, he was an excellent instrument for the greatest good of the greatest number. 

Helga mentioned the dull socialism of Canada in contrast to the virtues down South. Methinks Helga does not realize yet that it is the more energetic socialism of the United States that brings her South to the land of liberty. Perhaps if I can find my manifesto, I will be of better use to her and to everyone else. Perhaps I may become a productive member of society after all. 

What better life can there be than Being Useful? 


(1) Geoffrey Barraclough, AN INTRODUCTION TO CONTEMPORARY HISTORY, Middlesex: Penguin, 1967

(2) Helga Ross,’ My American Love Affair’, Australia: Writtenbyme, 2001. Helga Ross


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