Can the Government Make You Happy?



The longer answer can be found in political scientist Benjamin Radcliff’s book The Political Economy of Human Happiness: How Voters’ Choices Determine the Quality of Life. Before determining whether the government can make us happy, we have to answer other questions, though: What is happiness? Can it be accurately measured, even across different cultures? Doesn’t it just vary from person to person? And how do we fairly evaluate the role that governments play in happiness?



I. What Is Happiness?

Happiness ain’t what it used to be. Like most cultural concepts, its meaning has changed over time. In highly communal cultures, happiness has a communal meaning. If your community is happy and you are fulfilling the expected role in the community, you are happy. Unhappiness comes from either a disaster that strikes the community (such as an attack by another tribe or a famine) or from being expelled from the community for being dishonorable.

As religions developed, this definition often shifted. Happiness became something that could be attained by an individual through contemplation or moral purity. By reaching a state like nirvana or the beatific vision, one could be united with what was most ultimate or divine. As might be expected, happiness was defined differently by different religious traditions. For a Western Christian, happiness would be found through a process of intense suffering in imitation of Jesus, while a Buddhist would find happiness through immunity from suffering. But the overall way to happiness led down a similar path of separation from the world through monastic life and union with the eternal and otherworldly divine reality. This view of happiness existed in tension with the communal view.

With the 18th century Enlightenment in Europe and North America, a third approach developed. For Enlightenment thinkers, happiness was individual (as with the religious view) and this-worldly (as in the communal view). Happiness, from this perspective, includes both internal psychological self-fulfillment and external freedom from poverty and hunger. It also, as with the communal view but not the religious, views happiness as something for everyone, not a select minority of people. Today, this definition of happiness exists alongside the communal and religious definitions, a fact that causes social tension and even wars.

But even religion has found ways to reconcile itself with this viewpoint. Liberation theologians have recognized cosmic, social/material, and psychological/spiritual dimensions to salvation. Prosperity preachers have promised both spiritual and financial blessings to their followers. Orange County megachurch pastor Rick Warren led tens of millions of book buyers on a quest for their own Purpose-Driven Life, then he came up with a plan for national prosperity in Rwanda and elsewhere. As one might expect, his success in selling books did not translate directly to human development on a national scale. But it is significant that virtually everyone in the modern world now admits that happiness is multifaceted and includes a material dimension that can be secured by good governance.

For purposes of governing, the Enlightenment definition of happiness is most important, if only because the government can’t deliver the beatific vision of divine perfection to the masses. The U.S. Declaration of Independence recognizes this area of government responsibility by famously declaring rights to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” In the next sentence, the Declaration claims that the people have the right to establish whatever form of government “shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” That same year, 1776, John Adams confidently asserted that “Upon this point all speculative politicians will agree, that the happiness of society is the end of government . . . . From this principle it will follow, that the form of government which communicates ease, comfort, security, or, in a word, happiness to the greatest number of people, and in the greatest degree, is the best” (12).

Politics is complex, and many people (especially conservative thinkers) emphasize the role of government in securing moral guidelines, such as property rights. Still, the dominant purpose for government is, most would agree, to effect the safety and happiness of the governed. Politics cannot directly create communal harmony or spiritual bliss, but it can secure a social and material framework that makes those forms of happiness far more likely for everyone in a society.



II. Can Happiness Be Measured?

Still, happiness itself is a nebulous concept. Even if we can define it in the context of one language and culture, it seems impossible to accurately compare levels of happiness among different societies. After all, each society will have its own conception of a good life and each language will have words for happiness with their own complex set of connotations. If we are trying to decide between the egalitarian liberalism of Tom Paine and the elitist hierarchical society envisioned by James Madison (the left-right dichotomy that Radcliff outlines) on the basis of which more consistently leads to human happiness, we need an accurate way to measure happiness itself.

Radcliff points out that social scientists have a simple definition of happiness as “the degree to which people enjoy their lives” (78). This is usually determined by asking simple questions. For instance, the World Values Surveys ask “All things considered, how satisfied are you with your life as a whole these days?” Radcliff notes that self-reported answers to this subjective question line up with more objective evidence, like frequency of laughter and smiling or evaluations of a respondent’s happiness by their friends and family members. Research has also shown that people’s beliefs about whether happiness is desirable do not affect their own self-reported happiness. Furthermore, the reliability of self-reported happiness has been confirmed by the consistency of people’s answers to the same question at different points in time or using different wording.

But what about differences between different cultures? Research has found that in multilingual countries average happiness is not affected by the language spoken by respondents (e.g., among Swiss speakers of German, Italian, and French). There is, however, a significant difference in happiness between the average Swiss speaker of Italian and the average Italian (83). Moreover, differences in average happiness among countries are not determined by the extent to which happiness is valued (which does differ in various cultures).



III. Can Governments Impact Happiness?

In an era of self-help books or television shows and personal coaches of every ilk, it is easy to assume that happiness is an attainment of individuals. One popular theory among social scientists is that each individual tends toward a certain level of happiness known as a set point. According to this theory, a large part of the variation in happiness among individuals is due to innate characteristics like genetic makeup. But research has consistently shown that a large percentage of the variation among individuals can be linked to factors like age, income level, marital status, and racism (particularly in the United States).

Another theory is that difference in average happiness between countries is rooted in national cultural characteristics. Some cultures might be naturally happy and others naturally sad, which could be attributed to differences like collectivism versus individualism. Yet another factor is the level of economic development and wealth. Finally, differences in political systems could also impact happiness, such as the level of democracy as opposed to authoritarianism. Radcliff’s approach is to control for each of these variables in his comparisons of average national levels of happiness.

Once one has observed clear group level differences in happiness, the idea that happiness is solely determined by individual characteristics can be dismissed. Additionally, many individual differences are linked to national policy, such as the negative impacts of poverty or racial discrimination on individual happiness. And national differences in happiness due to non-policy factors such as culture, economic development, and political system can be set aside using statistical controls, as Radcliff has done.



IV. Can Government Policies That Impact Happiness Be Measured?

And yet, even if happiness can be adequately defined and measured at the level of national averages, that is not enough. We still need to measure relevant government policies to assess the impact that those policies have on happiness. Radcliff focuses on issues that have divided the economic right and the economic left since the Age of Revolutions.

The size of the state is perpetually debated, with opinions ranging from small government libertarian free market ideology to state socialism. To assess government influence on happiness, Radcliff uses per capita welfare state spending as a measure. That is, how much income is being transferred by the state to residents?

Just as controversial is the power of labor unions, with the left supporting them and the right generally opposing them. The obvious variable is labor union density, the percentage of workers who belong to a union. Labor union density varies widely due largely to differing government approaches to unions, at 86.4% in Iceland in 2014, 67.3% in Sweden, and only 10.7% in the United States that same year.

Finally, economic regulations (ranging from restrictions on the banking industry to labor market regulations that prevent layoffs) may impact happiness. Two right-leaning think tanks maintain detailed ratings of so-called “economic freedom”: the Heritage Foundation has its Index of Economic Freedom and the Fraser Institute studies the Economic Freedom of the World. Radcliff also references the more objective Employment Protection Legislation (EPL) index provided by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).



V. How Can the Government Make You Happy?

So how do each of these measures of economic policy correlate to happiness on a national level?

More generous welfare states seem to promote human happiness. In fact, as much as there is a difference in happiness between the unemployed and the employed, moving from the developed nation with the smallest welfare state to the nation with the largest welfare state “would produce three times the improvement in one’s quality of life than that achieved by escaping from unemployment” (129). This difference related to the welfare state is twice the difference in happiness between the unmarried and the married, another major factor in individual happiness. Moreover, we see a drastic decline in happiness in Switzerland from 1981 to 2007 while that nation’s welfare spending also hugely declined.

As for labor union density, not only does it increase national level happiness. Higher union density actually contributes to the happiness of both low-income and high-income members of a society. While the benefits of union density are greatest for those at the lowest levels of education, they exist even for people with higher educational attainment (including, we can assume, managers and non-union professionals).

Lastly, differences in levels of labor market regulation (as measured by the Heritage Foundation, the Fraser Institute, and the OECD) affect happiness, with people in more regulated economies reporting higher life satisfaction. As with the welfare state, the difference between happiness in the least and most regulated economy is three times the difference between employed and unemployed individuals.



VI. Loose Ends

All that being said, there are at least two possible objections to the obvious conclusion that left-leaning economic policies should be preferred to promote human happiness.

First, conservatives might disagree with Thomas Jefferson or John Adams that it is the role of the state to make people happy. If people are, on average, more miserable but also more “free” in the sense of free market economics, that could be a morally acceptable situation. The ethical difference here is the difference between utilitarian ethics (which would prefer left-leaning policies that have better practical outcomes) and deontological ethics (which could formulate rules about economic autonomy or private property rights). This is a fundamental philosophical disagreement that should probably be resolved politically. For that to happen, we need as much relevant information as possible, which Radcliff, at the very least, helps to provide.

Second, free market advocates might claim that a generous welfare state entails ever-higher budget deficits and economic collapse in the long term. That would make gains in human happiness due to the welfare state temporary and illusory. On the one hand, socialists would typically agree with conservatives that social democratic economic policy runs counter to a global capitalist economy. Social democratic policy is seriously constrained by economic competition that, for instance, keeps corporate tax levels relatively low. On the other hand, the Nordic social democracies have had remarkable achievements in technological innovation and entrepreneurship. Happier people are also more economically productive.

These objections aside, it seems that a social democratic approach to economic policy and labor law is a significant tool for the creation of relative human happiness in nations and individuals.