It stands to reason that all human beings (assuming free of mental illness) want to be happy, content or at least have positive feelings and harmony in their lives. However, happiness is very subjective based on brain chemistry, individual mental state, and character disposition, none of which can be subject to public policy, except in so far as a country’s health system and social programs are concerned. Happiness is also based on individual, family, community, religious or secular criteria that may include a combination of factors from health to money, from achieving one’s career goals to securing upward social mobility for one’s children, from mastering the complexities of quantum theory in physics to traveling around the world for the mere joy of it, and so much more.
It is also possible that some people may not want to entertain positive feelings, or be “happy” because negative feelings, lack of contentment or unhappiness provides an existential sense of being, feeling alive and empowered through negative energy because there is purpose in life for which to strive. There is also the element of happiness and cultural relativism that accounts for different perceptions of this concept in different cultures. What may constitute happiness for a Wall Street stock broker is not the same as a small farmer in Kazakhstan. As we will see below, the concept of happiness in the individualistic West is different than it is in societies where collectivist or communitarian values prevail. In all cases, of course, human beings have basic needs that must be met for survival and those essential common needs transcend cultural differences and nuances in what constitutes happiness.
Finally, there is the whole notion that happiness is an illusion like so many others people entertain in order to cope in life. If we accept that narcotics induce a sense of euphoria owing to stimulating effect and disruption of neurotransmission, then happiness as a state of mind may be another illusion that the media and societal institutions in general have inculcated into the mind of people. Can the state provide the illusion that people are happy? Of course it can and it always has by projecting an image of grandeur and the best possible society citizens can live in, an issue with which French thinker Voltaire dealt in his brilliant novel Candide. If government and its rulers endeavor to project the “best of all possible worlds” idea as Voltaire’s novel satirizes, then people are either duped or they live vicariously through the lives of others who are satisfied with their lives.
Ideological commitments determine where scholars side on the controversial issue of public policy and human happiness. For some, there is a demarcation line between personal and societal welfare where public policy has no role to play in the personal domain for it would mean legislating morality. This reflects an ideological preference toward classical Liberalism, while those more accepting of collectivism in society see public policy as playing a role in both community and individual well-being. A Marxist and even some non-Marxist Socialist would argue that human happiness is economically determined and class based.
Depending on the ideology, so goes the analysis and conclusions about the merits of public policy and happiness. It must be stressed, however, that these are not absolute and constant concepts because the epoch and place determine their nature. Besides the issue of cultural relativism, all of this assumes rationality in human conduct when in fact that is not a valid assumption. The absurdity of society where everything from wars to individual violence takes place, from mass poverty to institutional prejudice poses monumental obstacles to human happiness. The question is whether government can and must help remove such obstacles to societal happiness by promoting greater social justice, even while religion and meditation offer spiritual comfort to help people cope individually.
Public Policy and Societal Happiness
Does public policy affect societal happiness or by contrast create or perpetuate societal misery? From ancient times to the present, many thinkers from different disciplines have argued this is indeed the case. Others insist that happiness is strictly an individual endeavor, thus happiness is strictly and individual matter and the domain of private morality and religion.
If public policy has a direct and indirect influence in peoples’ quality of life, it is because of fiscal, economic, social, and foreign/defense policy. In this case, the role of the state becomes central to societal happiness or misery. If public policy benefits only a privileged segment in society, then it stands to reason that happiness is legislated for a narrow social group at the expense of the majority which remains in perpetual misery as a result of prejudicial public policy.
With the rise of mass politics in the 20th century, with capitalism weakening parliamentary democracy rooted in a social structure that requires a strong middle class base, there are scholars, politicians, journalists, trade unionists, students, and social activists arguing for public policy intended to engender societal happiness. More interested in social justice than they are in the success of market hegemony, critics of the dominant culture and capitalist political economy see public policy impeding societal happiness.
Although the mass media and politicians equate success and happiness with market performance, and although the market has a determining role in the lives of people around the world, happiness and the sense of satisfaction for the vast majority does not hinge as much on markets as on how public policy impacts them. At the broader societal level, happiness in civilized society has always been a matter of social justice.
The reality of mass uprisings throughout the Muslim world in the last few years (Arab Spring), mass demonstrations in the US (occupy Wall Street movement, among others) and EU (especially Spain, Portugal, Greece, Italy, and France) against socioeconomic injustices and absence of political representation of all citizens, strikes and protests in Latin America (especially in Chile and Argentina) and Asia (especially Philippines, Thailand, Hong Kong and South China, Turkey, Cambodia, and Indonesia), all of these indicate a search on the part of those in the periphery of the institutional mainstream for social justice that many equate with societal happiness.
The challenge for politicians in the 20th century as the era of mass politics is to forge popular consensus in order to govern effectively under the umbrella of the market economy amid tensions between nations that case numerous wars. The challenge for political leaders in the 21st century remains essentially the same, except that the public, especially in Western democracies, is likely to make greater demands that public policy must meet the welfare of society and its broader happiness equated with a sense of fairness or social justice, and not special interests. The question of public policy and societal happiness or satisfaction as an integral part of the social contract is the key to successful government, more so today when instant global communications have raised the social consciousness of the masses.
While there is only one country, Bhutan, on the planet with a happiness index comparable to a GNP index, there is an underlying political interest on the happiness index as a measure of forging popular consensus. Just as some companies want happy and satisfied employees and customers, politicians wish the same for their constituents. Nevertheless, most politicians in the world today would oppose legislating “happiness” because it is an extremely high risk endeavor because this is the domain of utopian politics and an area filled with traps in case of failure to deliver on the social contract.
Regardless of a politician’s predisposition on this issue, laws have a positive impact on some social groups and negative impact on others. After all, this idea is as old as ancient Athenian leader Solon “the Law Giver” (638-558 B.C.) who believed that good or harmonious laws (Eunomia) account for a harmonious and happy city-state, while bad or unfair laws (Dysnomia) result in chaos, misery and ultimately uprising of the citizens. Coming to power after the city-state was on the verge of revolution, Solon recognized that government has a role in social justice, which translates into harmony or disharmony in society and that in turn translates into happiness or unhappiness among the disparate segments of the population.
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).
Although GNH was set up for the well being of citizens, libertarian critics argue that we live in a Rousseau-type world where people must be compelled to be happy at the expense of their free will. However, Columbia University and private polling groups track world’s happiest and least happy nations, with criteria that some may find questionable and others may accept. The polls are not just an indication of measuring the reflection of public policy on citizens, but how stable a government may be so that investors feel safe with their money. For example, it is not surprising that the Scandinavian countries rank top in the world, while Africa and the Middle East rank among the lowest, while southern Europe undergoing austerity also rank among some of the world’s poorest nations. Nor is it a coincidence that the countries ranking at the bottom enjoy a low level of national sovereignty owing to dominant external influence at the economic, political and/or strategic levels.
Religion, Happiness and the Earthly State
In all civilizations throughout history, religion has been the source to which most look for happiness they associate with inner tranquility and a sense of satisfaction combined with the hope of redemption. While Western thought stresses the role of the individual in relationship to the state, in Eastern religious and philosophical thought the emphasis is on societal unity that reflects a cosmological unity, and systemic-collectivist approach to the issue. In both Western and Eastern religious traditions, the emphasis is the individual’s spiritual redemption and not the earthly goal of social justice that would deliver happiness through public policy.
In the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Karl Marx rejected religion as escapist illusion, a relatively cheap narcotic for the masses to alleviate the pain from earthly misery. After all, human beings live in the material world where the state and society produce religion and the elites use it as a conformity mechanism to perpetuate a privileged institutional structure. “The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.”
German theologian Ludwig Feuerbach’s (The Essence of Christianity, 1841) assertion that the quest for happiness must form the basis of all morals because happiness is innate is a concept with roots both in pagan philosophy and Christian doctrinal tradition, especially in neo-Platonist Christian theologian Augustine, Bishop of Hippo (354-430 A.D.). Living during the declining years of the Roman Empire, he argued that people are not happy because they do not have what they want in life in terms of “earthly possessions”.
According to the theologian who set the doctrinal foundations for Catholicism in the Middle Ages what people need is spiritual love of God that is permanent. Submission to the Will of God is the only road to happiness. After all, the disappointments of life on this earth point the way to God. People, however, seek things of the earthly temporary world at a time of the declining Roman Empire that could not even offer protection from Barbarian invasions overtaking the Western provinces and sacking Rome (410 A.D.by Alaric King of the Visigoth), an event that inspired Augustine to write the City of God as the alternative to Rome, the city of man. By accepting the assumption that happiness is a goal of human beings, St. Augustine was merely saying that the church could deliver it where the state had failed and can never succeed. Such thinking was not unique to Western thought, but is also found in Asia much earlier than in the West.
The Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama, 563-483 B.C) also argued that the pursuit of material things, pleasure, immortality and all things of this earth make people miserable because happiness is rooted in the spiritual domain. One answer to human happiness is religion or spiritual contemplation intended to achieve Buddhist-like transcendence. Needless to say, there are differences between St. Augustine’s neo-Platonist Christian positions on happiness and those of the Buddha whose Upanishads-rooted teachings maintain that understanding the causes of (spiritual) suffering leads one to unlock the secrets to happiness. While the Buddha and St. Augustine offer spiritual solutions to human misery, neither had a practical institutional solution for misery caused by the earthly institutions. Not that one would expect theologians and spiritual leaders to provide “earthly” advice for people to be happy, for that is the job of those in other domains from medical science and the arts to public policy.
Without taking anything from the religious/spiritual emphasis to human happiness, there is the reality that people live as social beings in a material world becoming increasingly more so. Clearly, for many centuries religion was the domain to which people turned to find happiness largely because the City of God, as St. Augustine insisted was the place for permanent bliss, whereas the earthly city is where we encounter misery. Regardless of whether one accepts the religious/spiritual road or sees it as escapism, modern materialistic culture is swimming in hedonism, becoming less spiritual as science and technology mold the human mind along with all aspects of life.
Tenth century Muslim philosopher Abu Muhammad al-Farabi combined the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle on human happiness as a goal of all people with Muslim doctrine of liberating the soul of material want and using this life as a testing ground for eternal happiness in the next. One would expect theologians to insist on the spiritual dimension and to have nothing to say about public policy as a means to achieve happiness, regardless of the strong evidence of social justice in society. Spiritual meditation and hopefully transcendence provides the vehicle to bring relief from misery, regardless of whether this is all inside the mind of the individual and has no connection to the empirical world.
Although religion and spirituality have their very powerful institutional advocates, this raises the question of how societal institutions, first and foremost the state, shaping human happiness in order to maintain social harmony. This is an issue that Solon (638-558 B.C.) raised when he was asked to design laws for the city-state of Athens about to lapse into chaos, revolution and civil war. This remains a key issue for modern society, whether religions step in to provide answers or the state and secular institutions. Eudaimonia or happiness is as important in classical (pagan) ethics issue as the concept of arête or virtue was very important in ancient Greece. Because classical thought rested on the concept of man as a social and political animal (Aristotle), namely, all activities of the individual are shaped by the very existence of living in a community it stands to reason that the state plays a role in eudaimonia or happiness.
Philosophical Approaches to Politics and Happiness
A universal issue that transcends time and place, public policy and happiness is an issue that Plato raised in the Republic, John Locke in Two Treatises of Government, Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the Social Contract, and a host of thinkers from ancient times to our day. In Plato’s Republic, one notices the link between the sense of “justice” in the individual, presumably rooted in social justice, and happiness. This was probably the thinking of Socrates whose thought rested more on the heavens rather than earth, as Roman philosopher Cicero noted. Nevertheless, we have in ancient Athenian thought the link between happiness and justice of the citizen in city-state, although the concept of justice was invariably associated with virtue as well.
Just as Plato placed emphasis of the individual to determine his happiness by transforming himself as a just and virtuous citizen so did Confucius argue in favor of individual transformation, rooted in the “humanity” that makes one nobler. No doubt, Plato and Confucius represented the elites of their respective eras and societies, and neither had much concern for the lower echelons of society. However, the idea of applying a happiness principle in the political context was established in ancient times as it has been from the European Enlightenment (18th century) to the present.
The European intellectual/cultural revolution that took place during the Renaissance and coincided with the Commercial Revolution entailed a “humanist” definition in the concept of happiness. The man-centered culture, the emphasis on life in this world, and above all the idea of creativity as a factor that accounts for satisfaction in life became themes that Renaissance thinkers developed, whether through art, sculpture, literature, poetry, or other aesthetic and scientific endeavors that fulfill human life. This intellectual revolution stressed human dignity and creativity amid changes in the social structure where a middle class and a capitalist economy were emerging. The commercial middle class challenging the value system and institutions of the feudal nobility associated with monarchies accounted for new perspectives on happiness as part of the social contract.
Such a perspective we find in the works of John Locke the father of Western Liberalism and the epistemology of empiricism. In his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke argues that: “The necessity of pursuing happiness [is] the foundation of liberty. The highest perfection of intellectual nature lies in a careful and constant pursuit of true and solid happiness; so the care of ourselves, that we mistake not imaginary for real happiness, is the necessary foundation of our liberty. The stronger ties we have to an unalterable pursuit of happiness in general, which is our greatest good, and which, as such, our desires always follow, the more are we free from any necessary determination of our will to any particular action…”
By the time of Locke’s era of the Glorious Revolution (1688), northwest Europe had changed to the degree that the rising middle classes made the association between societal happiness and public policy through the legislative branch that Locke believed ought to be in the hands of all propertied classes, and not just the landowning nobility represented by the Tory Party. Along with the Glorious Revolution we have a shift in the value system because class structure changes demanded it, as they demanded political change that Locke articulated in his Two Treatises of Government (1689).The 18th century brought about even greater changes in the bourgeois value system and even greater expectations of the government’s role in society’s happiness. However, the Industrial Revolution in England also created a sense of fear among the middle class intelligentsia because the greater wealth it created the more poor people emerged especially in London and other urban areas.
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.
Addressing the issue of human happiness from a Christian moral perspective but with a sense of realism rooted in the Industrial Revolution, Thomas Malthus (An Essay on the Principle of Population, 1798) linked the asymmetrical rise of the population to the exhausting demand for natural resources necessary to sustain such growth. Malthus did not see that the root cause of human misery rested with the unequal distribution of resources, but with the rapidly rising population and the poor multiplying at such rapid rates precluding their own ability for adequate means of survival. In short, it was not the economic structure and public policy that restricted human happiness, but population growth. A Christian clergyman, Malthus believed that there are limits to human happiness for infinity rests only with God. Therefore, it is not public policy that can deliver happiness, but rather people that must refrain from overpopulating the earth which has limited resources.
Without debating the many facets of Malthusian theory about asymmetry between rising population-declining natural resources, Malthus focused on this asymmetry as the one and only cause of poverty, disregarding the issue of equitable income/wealth distribution and the impact public policy on the economy. Classical economists from David Ricardo to Karl Marx debated the contradictions of capitalism, namely, how it creates enormous wealth and at the same poverty to polarize the social structure. Trade unionists, progressive politicians and journalists in the 19th and 20th century dealt with the same issue, debating whether public policy plays a role by legislating to promote the market economy based on the profit motive.
If indeed there was and still is more than enough food to feed the world’s entire population but it is simply not profitable for companies to do so, the Malthusian argument has its limitations. It is worth mentioning that contemporaries of Malthus, as well as neo-Malthusians and apologists of a capitalist system throughout our modern times, insist that poor people have no one to blame but themselves for their condition. Therefore, the state must remain a casual observer of structural poverty, although the political economy based on capital accumulation and socioeconomic inequality creates poverty as it facilitates capital accumulation. After all, every person is on their own and the state can only provide protection for life and property, according to classical Liberalism, not alleviate misery through social policy.
Adamantly against public policy alleviating structural causes of societal unhappiness, neo-Malthusians and neo-liberals believe that aiming at social justice and happiness of all sectors in society entails higher taxes on the more affluent taxpayers. In short, societal happiness rooted in social justice has a price tag for the wealthy. This was the argument in the 1930s amid the Great Depression when FDR tried to institutionalize the social safety net that was rooted in Progressive Era (1900-1920) and Keynesian thinking.
Published in 1930 on the eve of the Great Depression, Bertrand Russell’s Conquest to Happiness is a good study of some aspects of human nature with a rather practical and humane approach to the topic. Influenced by Aristotle’s view all things in moderation and the primacy of the individual as the measure of all things, Russell believed in the Western concept of individualism. However, he was not oblivious to the reality that external forces, including institutions like the state, obviously impeding happiness at the societal level.
It is rather interesting that the most prolific philosopher of the 20th century decided to write a book would come out of the post-WWI decade when so many Europeans were not feeling so happy after the mass destruction and blamed not the individual but the institutions on which Western Civilization was built. Odd that Russell would tackle such a subject when a number of thinkers from T. S. Elliot to Jean-Paul Sartre were questioning the European value system that molded the minds of the masses and very foundations of Western Civilization as detrimental to human happiness.
Just a few years after Russell’s book on happiness, Hitler took power and authoritarianism with a pro-Nazi or pro-Fascist tilt spread from Portugal and Spain to Greece and the northern Balkans. All of this took place against the background of the Great Depression and just before the deadliest global war. How could the individual possibly remain oblivious to tyranny spreading across Europe, economic disaster conquering the world, and the reality that Hitler and Mussolini would spread destruction on a massive scale in Europe, Africa and the Middle East? How could any individual with a modicum of social conscience possibly remain oblivious to such developments and focus only on the self as though there is no society? Even Russell the pacifist intellectual who realized that happiness goes beyond the narrow boundaries of philosophy as Plato and John Stuart Mill envisioned it, made an exception when it came to European democracies uniting to defeat the Axis Powers that were clearly a threat to humanity.
Classical Liberals and neoliberals of our time advocating globalization and privatization of any public service deplore the idea that the state must a role in the domain of human happiness. This is an interesting position, considering that public policy impacts the material lives of people, making the privileged in society more content while keeping the less privileged into a state of misery. If happiness is the selfless act of doing beneficial things for others, regardless of whether the activity is voluntary or paid, then the laissez-faire proponents have no problem. But what if government policy from fiscal measures that are a means of wealth redistribution, to labor policy, to social policies are detrimental for the harmony of the citizen? Another dimension to consider about societal happiness and public policy is its absence in those countries that lacked national sovereignty which advanced countries simply assume is a given.
Happiness and public Policy in the Interwar Era
Is it possible for the state to conduct public policy in such a manner as to advance societal happiness or positive emotions of people even if this is a mere illusion on the part of the masses? According to Nicolo Machiavelli, people are invariably judging everything at the surface level, rather than its essence. Therefore, projecting an image in public policy intended to encourage greater positive emotions is all that matters.
The utilitarian theory of Jeremy Bentham as articulated in “A Fragment on Government” (1776), established the axiom: “it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong.” Bentham’s axiom became one of the moral and legal bases for representative democracy. If the best society is where people are happiest, then Bentham was correct that it stands to reason the best policy is the one producing the greatest happiness. But is such a goal possible in a class-structured society, and is it possible in those countries that are externally dependent as are many in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and even the periphery countries of Southern and Eastern Europe?
Achieving happiness in the secular sense and linking it to societal institutions became a concern of the European intelligentsia representing the middle class in the 18th century. Intellectuals of the Enlightenment influencing the 19th century as well believed that a “scientific” method can be applied as much to solve social problems as all others. However, Enlightenment thinkers had different ideological positions that determined their views on human happiness and the role of institutions, including the state. Intellectuals reflecting on the concept of happiness were in essence reflecting the fundamental change in the social structure that the Industrial Revolution transformed and which in turn necessitated changes in the political arena, gradually bringing the capitalist class closer to imposing its will on public policy.
The interwar era brought to the consciousness of the masses around the world the government’s role in societal happiness (Jose Ortega y Gasset, Revolt of the Masses, 1930. This was especially so during the Great Depression that ruined the lives of millions, while mainstream politicians and apologists of the market economy asked people to simply wait until thing improve. The US and many other countries adopted New Deal type of policies based on the economic theory of John M. Keynes who advocated using the state to absorb the surplus capital from the private sector and combine it with deficit financing in order to stimulate jobs growth. Intended to rebuild decaying capitalism under the weakened parliamentary system in which the masses had lost confidence, Keynesian economics aimed to provide a safety net for the disgruntled masses. The state could not engender societal happiness amid the Great Depression, unless it alleviated misery on a wide scale.
In some countries, it was indeed too late to save the parliamentary system in which people lost faith. Fascism in Italy, Nazism in Germany and authoritarian regimes in southern and Eastern Europe resulted because the market economy was dysfunctional and generated misery on a broad social scale. The majority of the Germans during the Third Reich believed that Hitler and his regime were capable of delivering the utopian dream of a superior race. Masters at propaganda, the Nazis argued that if only the nation rid itself of Jewish profiteers and exploiters, Communist and gypsy parasites, other lesser humans impeding the racial superiority of Germans, only then would the pure Aryan race achieve its dream of societal happiness.
Although in reality the Nazis delivered destruction for Germany and Europe on a massive scale, their followers believed that was the correct path “racial and national happiness”. Sixty-five percent of the German citizens who voted for Hitler and millions more around the world, entertained positive feelings for Nazism as the solution to societal problems. They felt good and happy about the Nazi regime, regardless of the illusory promises it was making to induce those positive feelings and regardless of the destruction it was delivering to its declared enemies. Nazism is one of the most glaring examples of mass illusions about societal happiness and public policy.
Coming to power at the same time as Hitler in January 1933, Franklin Roosevelt had to cultivate positive feelings on the part of the American people not demonizing “enemies” of the nation-state but asking for altruism, communitarian disposition and comforting people that their enemy was fear that they must overcome. In short, FDR approached the issue of mass psychology and inducing positive feelings across society by trying to convince the masses to rid themselves of illusions they entertained about the other as the enemy, about atomism as the solution, because the problem of the economic depression would be solved collectively and the enemy was the culture of greed and individualism of the 1920s.
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
There is growing evidence that rising levels of prosperity in Western economies after 1945 have not been matched by greater incidences of reported well-being and happiness. Indeed, material affluence is often accompanied by greater social and individual distress. A growing literature within the humanities and social sciences is increasingly dedicated charting not only the underlying trends in recorded levels of happiness, but to consider what factors, if any, contribute to positive and sustainable experiences of well-being and quality of life. Increasingly, such research is focusing on the importance of values and beliefs in human satisfaction or quality of life; but the specific contribution of religion to these trends is relatively under-examined.
Although money is not necessarily the thing that makes people happy, neither is abject poverty where there is lack of clean water, basic foodstuffs for survival and essential medical services. While the Western World and richer nations may not think about such things and demand better health care and education for their countries, we still have more than two billion people, mostly Africa, Latin America and Asia that lack the basic needs of life and that is a matter of public policy at the local, national and international levels as it touches the entire planet one way or the other. I want to stress that societal happiness in many parts of the Third World or developing nations depends on external forces that dominate national economy and influence public policy.
For merely propaganda reasons and to secure voter support, politicians are interested in finding ways that the voters believe they are “happy” with their candidate, even if they may disagree with parts of the candidate’s policy agenda. Emulating the behavior of the church, regimes from the Age of Absolutism to the present have tried to inculcate into the minds of the masses that happiness is synonymous with identification with the regime. Not just the cult of personality, but the cult of a regime has the ability to manipulate public opinion so that the majority believes their happiness hinges on strength of the leader and regime.
In a public opinion poll with the ranking of countries with the most negative emotions about their lives Iraq ranked at the top in 2013, followed by Iran, Egypt, Greece, and Syria, while African countries rank among the lowest in all such polls. In fact the top ten “least happy nations” have political regimes that are not tolerant of diversity as in the case of Middle East countries, or they face monetary austerity as in the case of Greece and Cyprus where half of the population is now below poverty or near it. OECD surveys dealing with the issue of “life satisfaction”, which is actually a better method of measuring responses than using the term “happy”, southern and eastern European countries under austerity policies (economic contraction) rank the lowest, while northwest Europe ranks highest.
While no one is surprised about the rankings of African and Middle Eastern countries, or India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, one may be surprised that the US has ranked just above or below Mexico in similar surveys. One would expect the world’s superpower to occupy a spot in the top five, but actually it is not even in the top twenty in many polls, indicative of the growing dissatisfaction with life under existing policies and institutional structures. Although polls are manipulative and the issue of “happiness and life satisfaction” is very subjective, the empirical evidence based on opinion polls shows the correlation between human misery and public policy.
Without a doubt, the existing evidence shows that the Libertarian argument of non-government interference in individual happiness is not relevant because people do not live in isolation inside caves but in organized society under common laws and policies. If we assume that human beings that draft laws do so knowing that those laws will benefit some and not others, and if we assume the justice system is as political as the legal system, and if we assume that the wealthy and powerful receive preferential treatment from the judicial system, then we cannot expect that society is based on a sense of equality for all.
Realistically, people in the Western World especially, would oppose the idea of legislating happiness even if government promised it would improve their lives. Because they are immersed in atomism, they assume that their free will determines their state of being, not realizing the limits of free will and the enormous influence of public policy in everyone’s life. From very young age when children attend school that government provides, to very old age when they may enter a public nursing home for the elderly, public policy follows people in every aspect of their lives and determines the level of satisfaction of lack thereof.
When the state legislature votes down same-sex marriage, it impacts the lives of those interested in legalizing gay marriage. Interestingly enough, those in favor of legislating morality are adamantly against legislating happiness, unless it is in matters pertaining to their own interests. At the same time, the mainstream politicians, journalists, and most intellectuals would have no problem with the state legislating well-being through mass consumption of processed foods that make people ill, but they have a problem legislating to lift the structural obstacles of poverty that keep millions in misery.
While the concept of happiness in the Western world has been linked to public policy, that concept is not at the core of political movements and regimes in many non-Western World countries. While there is recognition that it is not the role of government to promote happiness through public policy, people understand when government can impede public happiness with its policies especially in fiscal and economic policy. Because there is greater attachment to traditions and customs, and because there tends to be a greater sense of collectivism than there is in the West, there tends to be a higher sense of satisfaction than in individualistic societies, at least according to a study by John F. Helliwell, Haifang Huang and Shun Wang who published their finding in the Journal of Happiness Studies.
With all emphasis on “efficiency” and competition, code words that apologists of market economics use to mean maximizing profit and cutting wage costs and taxes, the culture of “maximization” leads to greater unhappiness for the majority so that a minority may derive greater material benefits. The question is whether the “maximization principle”, as one scholar describes it leads to happiness as it promises or creates more problems and greater unhappiness in society. (Hilke Brockmann and Jan Delhey, eds. Human Happiness and the Pursuit of Maximization: Is More Always Better? (2013
Along the “maximization principle” that leaves the vast majority aspiring to what the minority has, there is a value system of atomism that goes along with it as part of the same ideology promising happiness. The privatized or atomistic notion of happiness in Western pluralistic societies is quantified against the framework of the “cash-value” culture and interpreted in terms of hedonistic value system. Immersed in atomism and hedonism, people subconsciously accept such assumptions but never aware of what makes them behave in a specific manner toward the pursuit of happiness as it is defined by the dominant culture. The notion of privatized self placed rather than the individual as an integral part of a community with a social conscience predisposed to consider the welfare of the community instead of the self raises serious ethical questions about the ethics of the concept of happiness in modern hedonistic society that the market economy and public policy reinforce.
Atomism keeps people in perpetual absence of happiness while altruism provides a sense of satisfaction, positive feelings and a deep connection between the individual and the community. Atomistic tendencies go hand in hand with the age of materialism in which the individual consumer is valued far above the citizen, the billionaire valued far above the humanitarian doctor working with the poor in sub-Sahara Africa, the famous movie star far above the soup kitchen volunteer. These values are constantly reinforced in everything from mass media to schools, popular books, and motions pictures that make up the dominant culture. These values are rooted in the political economy of consumerism that is a black hole leading nowhere, and certainly not to happiness because there is no end to the appetite for consumption that the public and private institutional structures push on citizens as the religion of our modern era.
Government leaders know as they have throughout modern history that forging consensus is the key to governing successfully. To deliver social justice through public policy that would in turn account for a happier population is a difficult task because this goal clashes with the interests of the various elites especially those who own most of the wealth, a problem that Solon faced more than 21 centuries ago when he took over Athens. One strategy of governments has been and remains that citizens must suspend happiness (their personal welfare) in the present in return for a better future for themselves and their children. This has been a standard strategy of Communist China, but also Western democracies as well as authoritarian regimes in the non-Western World.
As long as people see evidence of broader national progress they are willing to suspend a better life for the present in exchange for a better future – the prospect for upward mobility or the equivalent of achieving the American Dream. Because capitalism as an economy promises the “possibility of riches” for anyone who plays by the rules of the game, people suspending disbelief of their own reality and identify with the millionaire, aspiring to become him and vicariously living through him. Because people live with the dream of becoming instead of assessing their present condition and future prospects realistically, and because the state and institutional structure constantly plays the theme of hope in the media, the illusion of happiness in society becomes a reality. It is not the case that people do not know their own interests, but that they place faith in their aspirations. How can we blame a coal miner in West Virginia for dreaming of becoming a millionaire and trusting the media and politicians that someday soon he too can make it in a system that he knows is essentially very hierarchical and the odds are against him?
Another strategy the state adopts to keep people perpetually immersed in illusion is a Machiavellian solution, namely, appearance is reality in politics. The state delivers the message that the status quo is best suited for society and that any change would be detrimental, even if the majority of the people are not happy under the existing system. In this case, governments invoke everything from democracy and expression through the ballot box to patriotism, asking citizens to sacrifice for the greater good, and not to risk opposing the system that would entail threat to political stability.
This is to suggest that the cynical and propagandistic approach is the one that government adopts, instead of opting for the road to social justice that would deliver greater societal happiness. The only way to change an institutional structure rooted in inequality and unfairness is to take the advice of English philosopher John Locke, namely, if the system is tyrannical, then the people eventually overthrow it because they decide as subjects that it is not in their best interests. As long as people entertain the illusion of happiness, whether it is because of the mass media that propagates, through churches and schools, through businesses and social clubs, etc., the government does not have to be concerned about public policy that aims toward social justice and happiness of its citizens.