The latest thing among those looking to justify government intervention is happiness. Nicolas Sarkozy, the president of France, gave a spark to this rationale last year by instituting a measure of gross national happiness. Now, it seems, this up-and-coming trend is coming to Canada. At a recent conference in Ottawa, sponsored by the Institute for Competitiveness and Prosperity and the Centre for the Study of Living Standards, participants explored the idea of government specifically targeting the maximization of personal happiness.
Social scientists have long considered happiness to be a subjective matter impervious to empirical analysis. But that view is beginning to change, thanks to a burgeoning field of scholarly inquiry known as â€œhappiness studiesâ€. Using surveys in which people are asked to indicate their level of contentment, happiness researchers try to correlate these self-reports with variables such as income, wealth, marital status, and social bonds. These researchers claim to have found a number of constant relationships. Chief among them is that, beyond the point at which our basic necessities are met, additional wealth does little to increase happiness. Peopleâ€™s well-being, too, is said to be tied to how much they earn relative to their peers as opposed to the absolute level of their income. Another oft-noted finding is that peopleâ€™s happiness is closely tied to the richness and strength of their social ties.
One can readily conceive how this can be used to support an active role for government. Since the wealthy supposedly do not get much additional happiness from all their money, while the less well-to-do can, letâ€™s redistribute incomes. That will augment the over-all level of happiness. And since, weâ€™ll all be more equal as a result, people wonâ€™t be so dissatisfied by how they stand relative to others. Not only that, if people can be encouraged to become less avaricious, they can get off the so-called â€œhedonic treadmillâ€ and focus instead on their families, friends, and communities.
The assumption here, of course, is that people need help to figure out for themselves what is in their own best interests. Government officials, armed with the latest social science, must guide the lesser informed under their care. The wise, as Plato would say, ought to rule. The freedom to live as one sees fit only belongs to those who know how to properly live.
But happiness researchers have not uncovered the objective character of happiness. At best, they have identified factors that tend to impact many, though not all, peopleâ€™s subjective experiences. Happiness remains a state of mind peculiar to each person. Subjectivity, after all, is not transcended by a rough consensus statistically gleaned from surveys.
If government remains ignorant, in an objective sense, where our happiness lies, it has no right to steer our lives. It must allow everyone the freedom to seek happiness for themselves, by their own lights.