Don't Worry, The State Orders You to Be Happy

This month's Cato Unbound takes on the small matter of human happiness; specifically, what governments should do to make people smile more. Barry Schwartz, playing to type, gamely files a dispatch from his own personal reality:

It is hard for me to see much reason for concern over a society that dedicates itself to promoting happiness by cultivating virtuous character and human excellence. It strikes me that this is a vast improvement on the pursuit of increased per capita GDP.

Well, here is a reason for concern: It might not be Barry Schwartz who gets to define happiness for the masses, or to design the policies that will inculcate widespread contentment. (Presumably, he'd start by narrowing our selection of jams.) As Will Wilkinson argues here, a government focused on increasing wealth doesn't attempt to make those choices, or to compromise among vastly different value sets; it simply helps people acquire the means to pursue their own ends. Continues Schwartz:

Then the question becomes: Why are we a collection of individualistic materialists? My answer is that it’s a by-product of the success of free-market capitalism. It is the pursuit of wealth, individually and collectively, that has induced us to equate happiness with pleasure. Benjamin Barber makes this point with great force in his new book, Consumed. The problem for modern capitalism, Barber notes, is that these days, “the needy are without income, and the well-heeled are without needs.” The task of modern economic players is to create needs in people who can afford to satisfy them, and doing that turns us into infantilized pleasure-seekers. No one is going to get rich in a society full of seekers of human excellence.

Maybe I'm misunderstanding here, but under any reasonable definitions of excellence and rich, capitalism seems especially adept at rewarding the former with hope of becoming the latter. And to excel, after all, is to stand apart--which sounds suspiciously like the individualism Schwartz so despises.

Back in 2005, Virginia Postrel took on Schwartz's confused critique of consumer choice.

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  • ||

    I'm lost about what he's going for. It seems that what Schwartz has done is to take a concept "Material pleasure does not necessarily equal happiness" that many people would agree with, and pretend that no one knows it except him.

  • ||

    Happiness is 50 kinds of cereal in the supermarket.

  • ||

    As opposed to Happyness, which is the ability to go from homeless to driving a red Ferrari by the force of sheer Will.

  • ||

    A government focused on promoting wealth is just as likely to take someone's property because a developer wants to put up some retail than to promote freedom and choice.

    For the government to decide that it is better to leave the land in a less-profitable state, it has to make some values judgements that go beyond increasing GDP.

  • ||

    Joe,
    Why does the government have to make the decision to "leave the land in a less-profitable state." You seem to be presuming that the government inherently has the right to take someone's property, and that putting up retail on that property increases wealth, or GDP. The land that the government seized was presumably more important to the person they seized it from, because the person wouldn't sell it for a "fair market rate." In other words, the prior owner of the property established the property's value to be higher than what the government established the property's value to be, meaning that the prior owner of the property derived more happiness out of it than the government was willing to compensate them for. Therefore, it is the individual in your scenario who had to "make some values judgments that go beyond increasing GDP" (or otherwise, personal income)

  • Fluffy||

    Anyone who wants to refrain from producing wealth and focus on attaining some nebulous and undefined "excellence" is already able to do so.

    Lots of people actually already do. There's not a lot of money in being part of a concert orchestra. There's not a lot of money in being a starving poet. There's even not a lot of money in devoting yourself to advancing human knowledge in some area and being a minor academic.

    I am somewhat at a loss, therefore, to understand what Schwartz means when he writes that we should consider changing policies in order to allow people to pursue excellence instead of wealth. I am less at a loss, however, if I read between the lines and assume that what he means is that we should have policies that will enable SOME PEOPLE to "pursue excellence" while also enjoying MY wealth, because we'll have more excellence if he can just get me to support more people who step off the wealth train to cultivate an interest in the excellence of their own navels.

  • ||

    The task of modern economic players is to create needs in people who can afford to satisfy them, and doing that turns us into infantilized pleasure-seekers. No one is going to get rich in a society full of seekers of human excellence.

    Anyone else get the sense that Schwartz is telling us more about himself than about ourselves?

  • ||

    No, Reinmoose, I'm not assuming anything.

    This isn't a thread about government activism vs. inactivism. It's about government promoting one set of ideals vs another. There actually is more than one axis along which political ideas can be laid, you know.

    "and that putting up retail on that property increases wealth, or GDP" Yes, I am. In some cases, the government action that is most likely to promote wealth is going to derogate from other values. Grownups don't merely deny that competing goals can come into conflict.

    "The land that the government seized was presumably more important to the person they seized it from..."

    For the government to find this argument compelling, it must weigh that person's happiness against GDP growth, and find the former more desireable.

    "In other words, the prior owner of the property established the property's value to be higher than what the government established the property's value to be..."

    Based on the happiness it brings him. Once again, to repeat the rather simple point that's eluding you, for the government to decide not to do the taking in order to avoid making the owner unhappy, it is deciding that happiness is more important, in this case, than promoting wealth.

  • ||

    Fluffy,

    Let's posit that the economy would grow by a couple $billion per annum more if the schools eliminated art class so that math class could be extended.

    Can you think of any counterarguments to doing so?

  • ||

    I am somewhat at a loss, therefore, to understand what Schwartz means when he writes that we should consider changing policies in order to allow people to pursue excellence instead of wealth.

    Just guessing here, but it probably has something to do with "excellent" writers like Schwartz being subsidized by those who pursue wealth...

  • ||

    Your entire argument assumes that taking the land to do whatever the government will do with it is "promoting wealth" or increasing GDP growth, when in actuality it's really a kickback to a political ally.

    You also assume that the government bothers to "weigh that person's happiness against GDP growth" to determine whether or not to seize the property, but I do not think that is a very strong factor in their final judgment.

    Eminent Domain seizures frequently do not lead to increased wealth (for which there are many definitions), and most CERTAINLY do not always lead to GDP growth.

    and what the hell is this?
    "No, Reinmoose, I'm not assuming anything."
    followed by...
    "and that putting up retail on that property increases wealth, or GDP" Yes, I am.

    The economy doesn't care what your "political ideas" are joe and it won't bend to your fantasies.

    And I'm sorry, I don't know what this sentence means, except it sounds like an attempt to be condescending:
    "Grownups don't merely deny that competing goals can come into conflict."

    And I can't determine if you're trying to say:
    "Pursuit of wealth is bad because it causes the government to take people's property for (purported) GDP growth."
    or
    "the government has the right to take people's property, but it should have a better conscience about who's property to take, and why."
    or
    neither... I don't know actually what you're trying to get across.

  • Fluffy||

    Joe:

    I don't think public schools should exist.

    Therefore I wouldn't choose to trap myself into arguing for a particular funding priority over another.

    But there are two different arguments going on here:

    I think Schwartz is erecting a straw man when he asserts that our current policies are based exclusively on maximizing wealth as a surrogate for happiness. I don't think the policies are organized that coherently. I think our political actors are in fact attempting to maximize happiness, and choose policies that maximize wealth only when they think that will get the job done.

    Demonstrating that there are policies which don't directly enhance wealth but which will make people happy is a lot different from demonstrating that it's possible to define some quality known as "excellence", and then possible to define policies that will lead to this "excellence", and then demonstrate that these policies are different ones from the ones that produce wealth.

  • ||

    Fluffy -
    "Demonstrating that there are policies which don't directly enhance wealth but which will make people happy...etc."
    Well observed. It seems like a whole bunch of arbitrarily defined concepts which can be manipulated to support a desired set of policies.

    Also, I read Scwartz's article in the Times (linked above) about choices, and he seems to confuse "number of choices" for the "ability to have a choice." While I neither support or denounce Bush's exact policy to somewhat privatize Social Security, I can tell you right now that I would far rather HAVE a choice in this matter than not have a choice and get screwed (as will inevitably end up happening when social security collapses and I've paid tens of thousands of dollars into the system before I retire). Everything he says about having too many choices and the effects on our psyches is accurate as far as I am concerned, but it's not at all the same type of "choice."

  • ||

    Happiness is 50 kinds of cereal in the supermarket.


    I'm reminded of reading some writer's spiel to the wonder of Icelandic society in Mother Jones in the 90s. Not about Icelandic culture, but its monoculture. The writer was so happy there was just one brand of various products in his local store, preventing the need to choose from among all those garish, colorful boxes at American stores...

    I find it a little odd, then that nobody's yet marketed a store to the whiny anti-globalist anti-capitalists where only one type of one domestically-produced brand is available for any given product, and in a suitably generic box. They could put "Global-Trade Free!" and "Made in USA!" on the boxes to appeal to the Blue and Red varieties.

  • VikingMoose||

    und I schot those three little birdz outside my doorstep.

    they woke me up and pooped all over the place.

    und now I'm happy. Every little thing vill be hokae.

  • ||

    joe:

    I'm not sure exactly what you are getting at. Which of these sounds better to you:

    "Goverment facilitates peaceful exchange and the ability to pursue your ends."

    "Government promotes a set of democratically arrived at values regardless of what individuals might prefer."

    Do you really want democratically arrived at values to be codified into law? A happiness entry in the Federal Register would make anything better?

  • ||

    "Let's posit that the economy would grow by a couple $billion per annum more if the schools eliminated art class so that math class could be extended.

    Can you think of any counterarguments to doing so?"

    Er. Hmm. Does it speak badly of me if I say "No compelling ones?"

  • lunchstealer||

    So no relation between our good Scandinavian Alces alces and the reinmoose, right? Just a coincidence on the shared moosiness of the names?

  • Chucklehead||

    Do you really want democratically arrived at values to be codified into law?

    If I'm not mistaken, that's exactly what joe would prefer. He said as much when he tried to explain what 'progressive' values mean in some thread not that long ago. Something to the tune that democratically decided egalitarianism is how society ought to be structured.

  • ||

    It is hard for me to see much reason for concern over a society that dedicates itself to promoting happiness by cultivating virtuous character and human excellence.

    That is scary. The unmentioned problem is what to do with the people who have no wish to have their happiness promoted by "society" cultivating their character.

    Can anyone name a society that claimed to promote "happiness by cultivating character and human excellence" that was not tyrannical?

  • VM||

    Korrekt. Lunch. No relation.

  • ||

    That is right. "Moose" is a very common surname you know...

  • lunchstealer||

    Hmm, is there a Eumemics movement for memes the way there's a eugenics movement for genes?

  • ||

    My method of pursueing happiness is to skip over everything joe says, no filter required.

  • llamastealer||

    The directors of the firm hired to continue the thread after the other people had been sacked, wish it to be known that they have just been sacked.

    The thread has been completed with an entirely different animal-related surname at great expense and at the last minute.

  • lunchstealer||

    I suppose that censorship would be a government-sponsored eumemics program, in that it would attempt to control the market of ideas in such a way that undesirable ideas were weeded out.

  • ||

    Why are we a collection of individualistic materialists?

    Because it sure beats being spiritualistic collectivists.

  • lunchstealer||

    joe | April 11, 2007, 12:57pm | #
    A government focused on promoting wealth is just as likely to take someone's property because a developer wants to put up some retail than to promote freedom and choice.

    For the government to decide that it is better to leave the land in a less-profitable state, it has to make some values judgements that go beyond increasing GDP.


    joe's sorta right. GDP focus is not ipso-facto libertarian in nature. It's not particularly relevant, but it's not untrue on the face of it.

  • ||

    Political correctness seems to me to be a form of eumemics.

  • Viking Llama||

    "llamastealer | April 11, 2007, 3:37pm | #
    The directors of the firm hired to continue the thread after the other people had been sacked, wish it to be known that they have just been sacked.

    The thread has been completed with an entirely different animal-related surname at great expense and at the last minute."

    hier

    the llama song!!!!!!

  • ||

    "...nobody's yet marketed a store to the whiny anti-globalist anti-capitalists where only one type of one domestically-produced brand is available for any given product, and in a suitably generic box."

    This conjures up images of Repo Man!
    Thanks, Eric.

  • lunchstealer||

    So was the Social Distortion album "Compact Disc" inspired by Repo Man, or was it the other way around?

  • lunchstealer||

    Oops, not Social Distortion - Does anybody remember who that was?

  • ||

    No one is going to get rich in a society full of seekers of human excellence.

    There was this 18 year old kid on NPR over the weekend. He grew up in china, studied the piano, attained excellence. When asked what he likes to do for fun "I like cars". His car "A Ferrari [That he never has time to drive]"
    And all in our infantile consumeristic society.

  • VM||

    Lunch-

    PIL - was released (1986) after Repo Man (1984).
    http://imdb.com/title/tt0087995/

    http://www.musicmademe.com/show_disco.php?d=2109

  • ||

    "...nobody's yet marketed a store to the whiny anti-globalist anti-capitalists where only one type of one domestically-produced brand is available for any given product, and in a suitably generic box."

    I don't know about you folks, but all the hippies and anarchists around here (seem to work and) shop at Trader Joe's. Aside from the wine & beer, almost everything they sell is one brand of each kind of item, and most of it is house-branded. I wish they sold "BEER" though... that'd be awesome.

  • ||

    If economists and other intellectual types have to ponder the nature of happiness to this extent, then I will postulate that they are already handicapped from achieving this goal!

  • lunchstealer||

    Ah, thanks VM. Soon as I posted it, I knew it wasn't SD, but couldn't remember who it was.

    That shootout in the liquor store should be one of the classic images of 1980s film.

    "The lights are growing dim Otto. I know a life of crime has led me to this sorry fate, and yet, I blame society. Society made me what I am."
    "That's bullshit. You're a white suburban punk just like me."
    "Yeah, but it still hurts."

  • lunchstealer||

    If economists and other intellectual types have to ponder the nature of happiness to this extent, then I will postulate that they are already handicapped from achieving this goal!

    Pondering shit is what makes economists and other intellectual types happy. And the market for these ideas allows them to pursue this goal.

  • VM||

    It is.

    also from earlier:

    "let's get sushi... and not pay!"

    "it happens sometimes. people just explode. natural causes."

  • ||

    Hmm, is there a Eumemics movement for memes the way there's a eugenics movement for genes?

    I don't know, but "The Eumemics" would be a really cool name for a band. Or anyway, something along those lines.

  • ||

    "Pondering shit is what makes economists and other intellectual types happy. And the market for these ideas allows them to pursue this goal."

    lol

    So so so so true. Sad, but true.

  • ||

    and asks us to heed Aldous Huxley's warning of a society in which everyone is happy "and yet the world is a nightmare.

    WTF!?!?!

    Ok did i read the same book as this guy? I mean the protagonist choose to be unhappy and was allowed to do so with no government intervention....WTF is wrong with that?..the people who choose to be happy were allowed to be happy and those who did not choose to be happy were allowed to be unhappy...sounds like a fucking libertarian utopia to me.

  • Fluffy||

    It doesn't sound like you read the same book, actually, since the state undertook to induce birth defects in its citizens on a mass scale to be sure that they would be happy with their state.

    And the state also acted to prevent the protagonist from spreading his eccentric views among the population.

  • ||

    joshua coming:

    "sounds like a fucking libertarian utopia to me."

    Indeed, it sounds exactly like a libertarian utopia excepting the massive, intrusive amounts of government meddling and intrusion that pervaded the whole society depicted in _Brave New World_. Did you pick up on that when you read the book (presuming you read).

  • ||

    I, for one, am awaiting for the powers to be to issue me my supplies of Soma...

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