Is It Government’s Job to Make Us Happy?

I came across Arthur C. Brooks’ book : Gross National Happiness: Why Happiness Matters For America—And How We Can Get More Of It, published in 2008

From a research perspective, we have to first ask what is happiness, whether it can be measured and if so, how. “Happiness is measurable,” Brooks states. (p.9).  Really?  In my world, I operate with a general guiding principle that says concepts like happiness do not lend themselves to objective measurement. He uses surveys that have asked  people to report their perceptions about their happiness. This is self-reported data and it is as good as it is going to get.  Surveys are a valid methodology and we can track people’s self-reports over time. We tend to assume that any problems with the self-reported data will balance out over time.

One premise of his research is that is a connection between large governmental policies and people’s perceptions about their happiness. Do you think that is the case?

Looking at 30 years of data, the self-reported levels of happiness do not vary much over time. Analysis of the General Social Survey (a very large national survey) found that in 1972, 30% reported being “very happy” and 53% reported being “pretty happy.” In 2002, 30% reported being “very happy” and 57% reported being “pretty happy.” (See table 1, p. 213). It is worth noting that even a national tragedy like 9/11 did not appear to impact self-reported levels of happiness.

Brooks begins by framing his argument  in terms the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.

Brooks does not provide any insight into what Jefferson meant by “happiness” 200+ years ago and he presents it as a given, that the government is responsible for causing our happiness. However, he turns the argument on its head in the last chapter when he argues against the dangers of creating a “Nanny government.”

But really, is it the federal government’s job to make us happy?  Some people might be happy if they lived in a house by the ocean with a chef to cook their healthy meals. Some people might be happy if they had someone to love them. Some people might be happy if they had sailboat.  Some people might be happy if they could smoke marijuana. What would make you happy? Is it the responsibility of government to make you happy?

We are back to the big question about the role of government.  Government is supposed to provide for the national defense and coin money. Most of us would argue that government needs to ensure that people are safe and have access to opportunities that will increases their well-being, such as education and employment. Some might argue that income security is important and others might argue that no one should be without access to necessary health care. Others might see a role for government to ensure that there is sufficient competition in the market, that the environment is protected for future generations, and that consumers are protected from unsafe products and scams. I see this leveling of the playing field a key function of government but some might say it is “Nannyism.”

“Happy” does not seem to be the right construct to me. It seems like an overly simplistic litmus test to judge what government should do.  Government should do those things that make people happy and not do things that make people unhappy. But when it comes to controversial public policies, it is rare to find agreement –although I have posted a few polls that show a substantial majority agreeing on some specific issues related to the bail out. My reaction, for example, to the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico is not a “don’t worry, be happy”  kind of feeling.

Brooks’ book raises a great set of questions. It also reveals some tricks used to mask an ideological perspective in the guise of social science research, including playing fast and loose with both data and research issues.

He offers a number of prescriptions to guide governmental actions. His opinions may be right or they may be wrong.  I have no problem with  him stating his opinion. My objection arises when  he tries to make his opinion appear that it is based on empirical evidence. I will post two examples on the blog later this week. Stay tuned.

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