It may be realistic to believe that the political economy determines human satisfaction, positive emotions (happiness) or dissatisfaction or negative emotions (unhappiness) of citizens in the 21st century when markets dominate public life and influence institutional structures and societal values. (For more discussion on this see Benjamin Radcliff, The Political Economy of Human Happiness: How Voters' Choices Determine the Quality of Life (2013) However, it is realistic to expect the state to intervene in favor of citizens and not the markets because citizens may reach a point of destabilizing or even overthrowing the regime.
In public opinion polls, there seems to be a correlation between countries ranking low on the “happiness scale” and citizens disliking their governments. Therefore, misrule entails a disgruntled population in our time as much as in the time of Solon and the near civil war conditions, or 17th century England (Civil War and Glorious Revolution), 18th century France, 1789), 20th century Russia (Bolsheviks, 1917), China (Maoists, 1944-1949), and Cuba (Fidel Castro and Che Guevara Communists, 1950s).
Of course it must be stressed that societal happiness assumes a high level of national sovereignty where external forces do not determine policy. For example, how can we possibly compare societal happiness in Norway that enjoys national sovereignty and is listed as one of the world’s happiest nations with war-torn Afghanistan under foreign military occupation and subject to intermittent foreign intervention in its modern history? There are also cases with lower level of intervention and external dominance at the economic level, such as Latin American nations historically under the hegemonic influence of the US and Africa under Europe. How can the people of Pakistan and the Central African Republic enjoy the same sense of autonomy and thus comparable societal happiness as the people of the US and France when the former have been subject to economic imperialism?
For the state to be an agent of societal happiness it must enjoy full autonomy, otherwise external agents determine societal happiness of its subjects. This is exactly what has been the case under the current globalization world order where there are patron and client states serving markets. Even if the role of the state is not to engender happiness in its citizens but to serve markets, do policies have beneficial impact on some who are much happier because they are institutionally privileged while others who are on the fringes and in misery because government policies keep them there? If indeed the state has a Gross National Happiness (GNH) index as does Bhutan, does this not mean that the state is restricting the liberties of those wishing to exercise their own will and even to wallow in misery if they so choose? The goal of Bhutan, a small country between China and India, is to adjust policy based on GNH indicators (economic, social, political, environmental, individual physical and psychological).
The American and French Revolutions formally placed the concept of societal happiness into the political dialogue by making it a core constitutional issue. To some degree the American War of Independence resulting in the Constitution codifies happiness as the excerpt below indicates.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
The concept of Happiness during the War of Independence under those specific circumstances meant something unique that does not have the same meaning today. However, the basic meaning of the concept includes contentment with government, public virtue and success, indicating the inexorable link between citizen and the state entering the social contract as 18th century Enlightenment thinkers envisioned it. Clearly, the influence here comes mostly from Locke’s Liberalism and to a lesser degree from Rousseau’s concept of social democracy. For Rousseau, man in the state of nature is essentially happy, but not so in civilized society where institutions corrupt and degrade human beings. Hence the opening line in the Social Contract: “Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains. One man thinks himself the master of others, but remains more of a slave than they are.”
Undertaking universal systemic changes in society, the French Revolution went farther than the American in promising to deliver the ideal society for its citizens. During the more radical phase of the Revolution under Maximilien Robbespierre, largely influenced by Rousseau, the state would be the ultimate arbiter of societal happiness. Many intellectuals, including Hannah Arendt, deplore that the French revolutionaries made societal happiness instead of individual freedom the center of their political agenda. Interestingly enough, Arendt reveals her Liberal bias and anti-Rousseau-Robespierre view by arguing that the Jacobins were promising something reflecting a “totalitarian” regime. This is in contrast with the American Revolution founded not as much on Rousseau’s social democratic ideology that promises happiness part of public policy, but on Locke’s that only focuses on individual freedom and nothing more. In this respect, Arendt the Liberal actually sides with Edmund Burke the counter-revolutionary who applauded the American Revolutionary War that maintained the social and economic status quo, but deplored the French Revolution that tried to undertake system changes across society.
A scholar who devoted her life to the study of totalitarianism in Germany, Hannah Arendt was influenced by classical Liberalism and the rationalism of the Enlightenment. Arendt argued that the first time we encounter the convergence of the concept of happiness with politics is during the French Revolution. While it is true that in their euphoria of the Revolutionaries raised the happiness theme to contrast the new regime with the old one under absolutist monarchy, it is a stretch to claim that the core of the French Revolution under the brief Jacobin rule rested on the concept of public happiness. Nevertheless, Arendt is correct to stress that never had a regime linked the concept of happiness with politics, considering that this was primarily the domain of religion.
Arendt’s work represents the sensitivity of a scholar who wrote about the horrors of the holocaust and at the same it reflects Western classical liberal assumptions that carry all of the bourgeois values of society and politics. Arguing that anything more progressive that trying to integrate the masses through a public policy safety net in order to engender greater equality constitutes a form of totalitarianism reflects both Arendt’s justifiable fear of Nazism and preference for classical European Liberalism as the only alternative. Coming out of the era of Hitler and Stalin, the era of the Cold War when totalitarianism meant both Nazism and Communism, she was very much a product of her era and found it unable to transcend it.
Contemporary Views on Public Policy and Happiness