"The role of government is to secure for citizens the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In that order. It's like a filter. If the government wants to do something that makes us a little unhappy, or takes away some of our liberty, it's OK, providing they're doing it to save our lives. That's why the cops can lock you up if they think you're a danger to yourself or others. You lose your liberty and happiness to protect life. If you've got life, you might get liberty and happiness later."
That quote is from Cory Doctorow's "Little Brother," which was released under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial ShareAlike License, and is available for free here. This blog post is released under the same license, because I kind of like it, and because I'm using this quote and it's as easy to call this remixing as it is to claim fair use.
For context, this view was brought up in the book to fairly hostile targeting. I think the proponents were given a fair representation, but it was attacked. And this isn't the only place I've heard it.
I hope it's obvious what's wrong with that view, but since people apparently do hold it, I've decided to get into it.
From the perspective of the founding fathers' intent: I think the cannon of American political history contains a few nuggets of context that strongly suggest the founders may not have felt that way:
Give me liberty or give me death. -- Patrick Henry
Live free or die: Death is not the worst of evils. -- John Stark
I don't know if you've noticed, but those weren't exactly unpopular statements. One of them turned into a state motto. Philosophically, it's not hard to imagine the founders claiming they'd rather live free than die slaves. We won a war, once, to defend the proposition that that was true for everybody.
But from a non-historical perspective, which is really more my strong suit, thinking of it that way just doesn't make any sense at all. If life always trumps liberty and happiness, the government's responsibility would be best filled by keeping us all in a massive compound, carefully controlled, so that we could never hurt ourselves and others -- to whatever degree we are able to feel free or happy there is our right, but not as long as it increases risk to our lives.
No, it's obvious that the fundamental rights in the declaration of independence are meant, like any good government, like our government, to work in tension against each other. By virtue of their contradictions, they pull each other away from extremes and into a sane, moderate stance.
Putting any one of these values above the others endangers all the rest.