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Governments should leave us free to pursue happiness,
not make its achievement a public policy goal

Posted by B. Daniel Blatt at 8:28 am - April 16, 2012.
Filed under: Freedom,Happiness,Pursuit of Happiness

Apparently in conjunction with Robert J. Samuelson’s thoughtful Sunday column, The global happiness derby, the Washington Post is running a poll today asking readers if they believe happiness should be the goal of government:

Even a significant major it of that paper’s readers (who would, I dare say, skew left along with its editorial direction) don’t believe governments should make our happiness their goal.

Now, to be sure, our Declaration of Independence defines the pursuit of happiness as a right; Mr. Jefferson thus did not define the right as happiness, but its pursuit, an important distinction.  It seems almost that it then becomes an aspect of another right, liberty — that governments should leave us free to pursue happiness.

Although, as Samuelson notes, some social scientists believe governments can promote happiness, the means of achieving that state of mind cannot be reduced to a crude formula.

Better he argues to “leave ‘happiness’ to novelists and philosophers — and rescue it from the economists and psychologists who think it can be distilled into a ‘science’ and translated into pro-happiness policies”:

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 reduce happiness.

And freedom also allows people to mend their ways and improve their state of mind.

Samuelson’s right.  This is not an issue for governments.  It is an issue better left to novelists and philosophers than to social scientists and politicians.  And one we can better work out independent of governments and together with our families, our friends and even the religious (and other spiritual) advisors we seek out (i.e., have freely chosen).

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13 Comments

  1. There is one country, Bhutan, that makes its goal the happiness of its people (or “gross national happiness). Bhutan is a heavily Buddhist country and much of its policies seem to be based upon Buddhist principles. I think it would be interesting to see how that has worked out for them (even though Bhutan isn’t exactly the most developed country and isn’t comparable to the USA).

    Comment by Rattlesnake — April 16, 2012 @ 3:39 pm - April 16, 2012

  2. […] This post at Gay Patriot prompted me to do a bit of research on one country that defines its primary goal as “gross national happiness,” or the happiness of its people.  That country is the heavily Buddhist, Himalayan nation of Bhutan.  From the Wikipedia article for gross national happiness: Like many psychological and social indicators, GNH is somewhat easier to state than to define with mathematical precision. Nonetheless, it serves as a unifying vision for Bhutan’s five-year planning process and all the derived planning documents that guide the economic and development plans of the country. Proposed policies in Bhutan must pass a GNH review based on a GNH impact statement that is similar in nature to the Environmental Impact Statement required for development in the U.S. […]

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  3. In a nutshell, that’s the difference between liberals (progressives) and conservatives. Liberals think it’s the Government responsibility to make them happy. Conservatives just want to be left alone… which utterly baffles liberals.

    Comment by V the K — April 16, 2012 @ 5:59 pm - April 16, 2012

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