Radical individualism left and right

In 1968, David Frost interviewed Ronald Reagan and Robert Kennedy and asked them to address the purpose of life. For Reagan, it came down to “individual fulfillment.” The government’s job was to get out of the way. For Kennedy, it came down to fulfilling his responsibility to society by helping someone less fortunate.

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend wrote an article in The Atlantic last year entitled, “The Pursuit of Happiness: What the Founders Meant – and Didn’t.” In it, she reproduces Reagan’s and her father’s complete answers to Frost’s question. Then she implies that Reagan’s idea of life’s meaning – an individual happiness that the government could only threaten but never help to achieve or maintain – led to his anti-government rhetoric. Reagan, she believes, left us with “an unnatural obsession with individualism, a single-minded focus on wealth over work, and an anti-government animus.”

In this post, I’d like to use Townsend as a liberal voice in favor of an Aristotelian notion of “happiness.” I’ll also quote Harry V. Jaffa from his book A New Birth of Freedom  as a conservative voice in favor of the same notion. I’ll point out how neither Townsend nor Jaffa has brought the left or the right to the Aristotelian table. Frankly, the Aristotelian notion of happiness on an individual and societal level, which Jefferson and the Framers were schooled in, seems to scare the hell out of today’s political left and right.