Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Happiness movement: "Silly and Oppressive"

Robert Samuelson condemns happiness as a governmental aim:
Creating an impossible goal -- universal happiness -- also condemns government to failure. Happiness depends on too much that is uncontrollable. For starters, personality. We all know people who seem blessed -- stable marriage, healthy children, successful job -- who are restless, grumpy and sometimes depressed. Meanwhile, others plagued by misfortune -- sickness, shaky finances, family disappointment -- persevere and remain upbeat.
Contradictions abound. Freedom, the ability to choose, is also essential to well-being, says the happiness report. But freedom permits people to do self-destructive things that shrink happiness.

It is a license for government to intervene and interfere where it should not, he says.
The happiness movement is at best utopian; at worst, it's silly and oppressive.
I can understand why he might think this - but he is wrong. We just can't reduce everything to the same old debate about the size of the state. Instead, we should to focus on a related but much more productive debate about the purpose of the state, or society as a whole.

After all, you could equally argue that universal wealth or GDP growth is an impossible goal. People differ in their skills and economic attributes. Some value money more than others. Some have the nerve to speculate and take risks, others are lazy.

Still, there is one thing he is right about. I think that aiming for some Benthamite utilitarian artificial measure of happiness is a mistake. That is why the virtues approach is better - developing your talents and abilities and judgment for a purpose. (see my earlier discussion of Alisdair McIntyre or Deirdre McCloskey, for example.)

In other words, happiness is a better aim for society and the economy than GDP. But happiness is better approached by cultivation of personal and social virtues, which indirectly lead to happiness.

And that also sidesteps the debate on the size of the state, which is so twentieth century. The twenty-first century should be about what wealth is for.

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