Thursday, November 15, 2007

The Federal Happiness Code

I was rather disturbed by this NYT editorial promoting direct government intervention to make people happy. GMU economics prof Don Boudreaux had the following to say about it (here):

“Here's the scariest line I've read in ages: "The era of laissez-faire happiness might be coming to an end. Some prominent economists and psychologists are looking into ways to measure happiness to draw it into the public policy realm."

“Several decades ago, many economists - enamored of their increasing ability to describe statistically existing patterns of production - fancied that a new age was dawning in which government would improve the lot of ordinary people by substituting its own production and distribution "plans" for the results of the market. These fancies proved to be dangerous fantasies. We would all be much better off -- happier, even! -- if this new generation of planners are laughed out of the public arena before their power grows to be as large as their gargantuan arrogance.”

These kinds of efforts always start with the best of intentions. Eventually you’d wind up with the happiness police. One of Boudreax’s readers responds, “Implicit in unhappiness, as defined by the Times, is the envy we feel toward those who have more than we do (with an interesting implication that the wealth must be making them happy).” The implication is that more wealth transfer programs would increase happiness.

The opening paragraph of the NYT editorial employs a logical fallacy to compare protecting life and liberty of citizens with making citizens happy. The entire editorial is then based on this fallacy. The Declaration of Independence does not imply that government can or should in any way make people happy. Rather, “the pursuit of Happiness” is among “certain unalienable Rights” with which “all men” are “endowed by their Creator.” The Declaration does state that it is the job of government “to secure these rights” by the “consent of the governed.”

While the Declaration cites God as the author of our “unalienable Rights,” it does not imply that even God can make us happy. Government can and should ensure that it does nothing to abridge our right to pursue happiness. In fact, if the government does infringe on that right, the Declaration suggests that it is high time to refuse to be governed by that institution.

Government can protect our right to pursue happiness, but it can do nothing to make us happy. As I frequently tell my children, happiness comes by individual choice. You choose to be happy or not. Nobody can do that for you.

To assume that the government can make you happy is to assume that a satisfactory definition of happiness can be achieved through political, legislative, and regulatory compromise. Can’t you just imagine a multi-volume Federal Happiness Code along the lines of our incomprehensible Internal Revenue Code? It could be backed up by thousands and thousands of pages of federal happiness regulations administered by multitudes of minions working for the Internal Happiness Service.

Since all governmental power is ultimately coercive power, a logical step on this journey would be to enforce happiness. I’m sure it would be just peachy to have IHS bureaucrats and happiness officers making sure you’ve properly filed your annual happiness return forms. And if you don’t, you might get a visit from gun-toting IHS officers with smiley faces on their badges.

Too far-fetched, you say? That’s what they thought with respect to federal income taxation back when the 16th Amendment was passed.


Divulge said...

I have to agree with you, I don't think that waking up to see police officers lugging around the "Jump-for-Joy Bazooka" would be a sight anyone would want to see. I also have to say that unhappiness is vital to our happiness. Going through a trial can make us feel better at the end. I don't think that I would be happy for being chucked in jail, just because my happiness was up to standard that day. I don't like doing some things, but Ido them anyways, knowing I'll be happier if I do it now and don't have to face the consequences later. I also have to say that pain is one of the best teachers in the universe. If it hurts, don't do it again. This could evolve into a society where little Jimmy could be taken tould Juvie because he poked his finger on a knife and didn't like it.

Democracy Lover said...

If men (and women one presumes) are "endowed by their Creator" with a right to the "pursuit of happiness", and governments "derive their just powers" from the "consent of the governed", then why should the governed be prevented from using the just powers of their government to assist in their pursuit of happiness?

Certainly government cannot make us happy, but it can certainly make us very unhappy (as the Founders were under King George), and it can assist in our pursuit of happiness without being coercive. A government that employs coercion on the governed is not a democracy and is not Constitutional. A government that permits, encourages and enables its citizens to pursue happiness is much preferable to one that says "you're own your own, we refuse to help".

Reach Upward said...

I agree that government can make sure it does nothing to infringe on our right to pursue happiness. But I disagree that government can make rules to make us happy. The only way it can circumvent coercion in its efforts to secure happiness for the governed is to ensure that there is extremely broad consensus on specific points.

A simple majority won't cut it. Even a two-thirds majority won't cut it. There will still be significant portions of the population that will be coerced into having somebody's vision of happiness shoved down their throats.

For this reason, government should be confined to action on items where very broad consensus can be achieved. Even then, however, we must be careful of creating a tyranny of the majority over a small minority.