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).