Happiness Is…


In Pursuit: Of Happiness and Good Government, by Charles Murray, New York: Simon and Schuster, 352 pages, $17.95

Charles Murray may not own up to it, but his new book, In Pursuit, really presents us with a sequel to Losing Ground. In this earlier work, he advanced the theme that American poverty was in full retreat until Congress formally declared war on it in the '60s. In Pursuit: Of Happiness and Good Government reinforces that theme. Murray provides us with an answer to the "how come" question, taking us on an intellectual cruise through the straits of domestic public policy.

Murray proposes that when we think about solutions to social programs, we use a "pursuit of happiness" criterion. Drawing on the writings of men like Thomas Jefferson and John Locke, he defines happiness as "lasting and justified satisfaction with one's life as a whole." Murray then treats us to an exploration of the nuances of happiness and the debate among giants like Aristotle, Jeremy Bentham, and John Stuart Mill.

Recognizing that happiness cannot be achieved unless certain needs are met, Murray surveys humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of physiological needs, safety needs, and the need for intimacy and self-esteem. Maslow's hierarchy becomes the skeletal framework for a large part of the book and serves as a sort of happiness barometer.

This attempt to define and measure happiness will be heady stuff for most economists. The concept is just too "touchy feely" to yield testable hypotheses and unambiguous answers. We economists don't spend time trying to establish the conditions of falsifying the statement that a person had lived a life of "justified satisfaction." Recognizing this state-of-the-art shortcoming, the economist admonishes: de gustibus non est disputandum (there's no accounting for taste).

Economic theory is not uniquely deficient in its ability to grapple with concepts like happiness. Sociological and psychological theory have not done much better. Yet since happiness is what we all seek, let us give Murray an A for effort.

Reading the first three chapters of In Pursuit, a hard-minded person might fear that it was set on a straight course toward shipwreck on the shoals of abstract socio-psycho-philosophical nonsense. But from the fourth chapter on, such fears evaporate. The Murray familiar to us in Losing Ground emerges—analytical and compassionate in his dissection of public policy.

Policymakers, activists, and large parts of the public call for more spending on food stamps, housing, and medical care for the poor, but Murray contends that the pains of contemporary society have little to do with the lack of material resources beyond those that meet Maslow's baseline needs: "Money in itself, by itself will not inspirit the dispirited homeless, make loving mothers of neglectful mothers, make a cheerful home out of a dump. A few days later, even if the money continues to be provided, the dispiritedness and neglectfulness will return and the home will be a dump with different furniture."

All the evidence we see, particularly from America's ghettos, seems to support this disconcerting conclusion—disconcerting because policymakers tend to think they can solve every problem with money. Murray is saying that the key features of America's welfare subculture are beyond the reach of public policymakers.

Turning to the crime problem in many American cities, Murray uses Maslow's second need—safety—as a happiness criterion. Lawfulness, which is conspicuously absent in many cities, is not necessarily coincidental with a low crime rate. Lawfulness "means that predatory behavior is treated in a reasonably predictable and understandable way that corresponds with commonly shared principles of right and wrong in the community."

Controversial Supreme Court decisions regarding admissible confessions (Miranda) and evidence (Mapp) tend to undermine people's perception of lawfulness. When criminals get easy sentences as a result of police procedural errors, people begin to perceive that guilt or innocence is determined by who has the best lawyer.

High levels of lawlessness lead authorities to decline to prosecute certain crimes and misdemeanors, or to offer plea bargains, because police are preoccupied with more "serious" crimes like murder, hold-ups, and rape. Trespass or property destruction goes unpunished, resulting in an intolerable level of community noncivility. This climate leaves the impression that there is no control, that anyone can do whatever damage and mischief the mind suggests. In a cumulative decay process, the most mobile persons—those who are often the most responsible members of the community—leave, generating an exodus by the next most mobile, leading to even more social decay.

Murray continues his analysis by focusing on the third prong of Maslow's needs hierarchy—the need for intimacy (community and family) and for self-esteem. Murray's discussion of dignity, self-esteem, and self-respect could very well serve as a new focus for more-sensible members of the civil rights establishment.

Murray himself differentiates, perhaps even quibbles over, the respective meanings of dignity, self-esteem, and self-respect. But his key point is that government can bestow none of them. In fact, government can hamper the development of these "self-actualization" attributes. Self-respect requires that individuals accept responsibility for their own lives. How then can it be attained if government handouts take the trouble out of being unemployed, the trouble out of illegitimacy, and the trouble out of supporting one's own children? As our years go by and we contemplate departure from this world, most of us can derive a sense of self-respect and esteem if we can say: I kept a job, raised my family, and made a contribution to my community.

In the last four chapters, Murray asks why, even with the best of intentions, government "solutions" fail. His discussion reminds me of the voyage of Jonathan Swift's Gulliver to Laputa, where he visits the Grand Academy of Lagado. Dedicated scientists, in the King's employ, had toiled there for years on projects like reducing human excrement to its original food in order to help with the world's food supply, extracting sunbeams out of cucumbers in order to provide supplemental heat, and adjusting the annual and diurnal motion of the earth and sun in order to perfect the operation of sundials. Certainly, success with these projects would have benefited mankind, but someone should have informed the scientists that Mother Nature, through the first and second laws of thermodynamics, has a strict prohibition against these activities.

Murray focuses on worthwhile, but impossible, government efforts to solve social problems. Using improvement of public education as an example, he asks how we are to put fine teachers into the classroom. He concludes that any politically feasible amount of pay increase—say, a 28 percent across-the-board raise—will only make education slightly more attractive to talented teachers but much more attractive to second-rate teachers. What about competency tests for teachers? The teachers' union will sabotage the effort by making the test so easy that a well-prepared high school graduate could pass it. What about requiring students to pass a test to get a high school diploma? Again, it will be made easy enough that a well-prepared seventh grader could pass.

Murray argues that we would go a long way toward solving the teacher problem not by engineering solutions but by stripping away all the unnatural aspects of teaching school in contemporary America. Among them is the climate of fear and apprehension prevalent in so many schools; teachers fearing students and parents is a "historical aberration." It is also unnatural to expect teachers to play the roles of policemen, parents, social workers, and ministers. Change in our schools requires reestablishment of the kind of respect that school teachers once earned and maintained.

Yet stripping away these unnatural features of today's school environment is virtually impossible in the areas where change is most needed, because of powerful teachers' unions and vested political interests. Murray argues, therefore, for a voucher system, so that parents would have choice and the educational establishment would have strict accountability.

Readers neither blessed nor cursed by economic training may not put Murray's happiness approach in the touchy-feely category. But regardless of what one thinks of this approach, it is clear that Charles Murray has made a very important contribution to the public policy debate. In Pursuit is well worth reading.

Contributing Editor Walter E. Williams, the John M. Olin Distinguished Professor of Economics at George Mason University, is the author of The State Against Blacks.