Thursday, March 12, 2009

Is Happiness a Political Question?

Mary O’Hara ,in the Guardian plugs a study by the World Health Organization and the Mental Health Foundation of Britain summarizing some research that suggests that income inequality makes people unhappy:

So-called happiness league tables frequently show that people who live in countries without gaping income inequalities between rich and poor - Sweden tends to be at the top of such surveys, with the UK hovering towards the bottom - are generally more content, but [study author Lynne] Friedli is keen to point out that the WHO research goes "much deeper" than many of the surveys that make the news.

(H/T Mark Steyn.)

It is worth noting initially that the assertion that inequality is a strong predictor of gross national unhappiness is incorrect, despite the frequency with which it is claimed by a lazy press. In Gross National Happiness Arthur Brooks find first that the inequality findings are not robust to different wording on survey questions. And the non-pecuniary things – marriage, community engagement, family – turn out to be better predictors of happiness than lucre. Perhaps most importantly, he summarizes the research and finds that, at least in the U.S., belief in equality of opportunity, not of outcome, is the key factor. People do not begrudge Bill Gates his billions, as long as they believe they have a chance to go as far as their talents will take them.

One unappreciated implication of this is that if everyone believes he is special, say because his schools, parents and society have remorselessly cultivated his self-esteem throughout his childhood, then everyone who doesn’t make it to the top attributes it to some kind of cosmic unfairness - to a lack of "social justice." The society that prizes self-esteem yet allows people the freedom to reward, or not, their trading partners according to their perceived value, cannot long stand. Inequality of result will lead to envy, envy will lead to redistribution, and redistribution to destruction of opportunity.

But a deeper question is, “So what?” Even if it were true that a massive exercise in redistributive taxation could make people happier, it does not follow that this creates any mandate for such a scheme. To see why, imagine that tomorrow a scientist concocted a compound that, when injected into newborns, would insure that they would be happy from the moment they awake until the moment they sleep, every day of their life – a vaccine against unhappiness. Should the government require that parents give such an injection to their children? Almost everyone would say no.

Why? Because there is more to life than happiness. The well-lived life does not just reside in the economist’s useful but limited concept of “utility” – a certain consumption pattern leading to a certain amount of happiness. Happiness comes not just in where you end up, but in what you had to do to get there. The society where people are handed things they have not earned is one where we cease to be human, because it is in the attempt, including the failed attempt, that we find out what we can and can’t do, so that when we can’t do it we are in a position to emerge better by learning how to do it better next time. It is in the trying as much as the doing.

By the same token, humans who were happy all the time would cease to be human. Our hypothetical immunologically lobotomized citizens would be a shell of their forebears, with no adversity to spur them to find that unknown reservoir within themselves, to do something greater. They would possess no desire to learn, to improve, to create. (This is why high-school students historically found "Brave New World" so disturbing.)

The hypothetical happiness shot is repugnant to our sensibilities for the same reason high taxes in the name of happiness are – they view happiness as an outcome to be managed by planners, not a thing to be achieved, or not, by imperfect individuals making their way in an imperfect world. Government-dispensed happiness would be a thing given to us on our knees by our betters, a thing in which we could feel no sense of pride.

There is a reason the U.S. is a land where the pursuit of happiness, rather than its achievement, is the founding credo. The new happiness research, all the more so in the hands of a press that cynically manipulates it, is a threat to something more profound than human happiness, and that is human dignity.



Anonymous AmandaO said...

Really enjoyed this post! Thanks. As always.

11:46 PM  

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