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.