More on the Paradox of the Lack of a Paradox When Maintaining That There is a Paradox

I finally received David G. Myers The American Paradox in the mail. Naturally, it begins, "We Americans embody a paradox." After quoting Dickens, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," that is. But what’s the "worst of times" about our times? Myers says, "There are those who wring their hands and just as rightly worry that our civilization could collapse on its decaying moral infrastructure." Just as rightly as whom? Those who claim, "We’ve never had it so good." And then we get data showing that, yes, things are as good as ever. Swell! And the evidence that "civilization could collapse on its decaying moral infrastructure?" Well, nothing. Pretty much.

Out of wedlock births are up (down recently, but up over decades). Crime. Violence in the media. "Rampant individualism." Materialism. Etc. But none of this begins to add up to the collapse of civilization. Indeed, we’ve just seen that we’re as rich and happy as ever. Hurray! No? The paradox, if there is any, is that none of this bad stuff has made us discernibly less happy. The inference ought to be that there is no threat to civilization. The moral infrastructure is sound. "Radical individualism" and "materialism" apparently leave us as happy as our grandparents in the imagined communitarian golden age. Our main political and economic institutions are remarkably robust, even as social institutitons evolve. And we’re just about as happy as people get. "Americans Watch TV More, Get Out Less, Are Exactly as Happy as Ever." Why don’t we see stories like that?

This is the nth book in this genre that I’ve read, and I simply no longer understand them. The more intimate I am with the data they present, the more inscrutable I find the overall arc of the arguments. The lesson they each show us is that we are better off in a multitude of different ways, worse off in a few others, and as happy as we’ve ever been. The troubled and disappointed tone has come to stupefy me. It simply doesn’t make sense, relative to common sense, or to the science, to think of individual happiness as an open-ended increasing sum, rather than as homeostatic, a kind of equilibrium state. So it’s just not a mystery why our wealth or anything isn’t making us a lot happier, because we’ve already arrived.

Assuming that it is possible to compare happiness across people (and I don’t really see why not), then there is a happiest person alive. That person is probably a genetic deviant, like the tallest person, the smartest person, or the fastest person. And, the thing is, they probably aren’t that much happier than many of us. I think we have to accept the possibility that many people who are alive today are about as happy as people get. We may be banging against the upper limits of our (non-reengineered) hedonic capacity. And that’s precisely why people are looking for something else or more, or whatnot.

Because happiness is just one of the good things that makes a life go well, not the thing that makes a life go well. Being happy is like having a good pair of shoes. They’ll take you lots of places. But you still need somewhere to go. And you still need pants.

More happiness stuff:

Rummel has posted this chart from Inglehart and Klingerman’s important paper showing the relationship between political freedom (as measured by Freedom House) and happiness. It’s very clear that freedom (as well having high GNP growth, and a non-communist past–highly interrelated attributes) is good for happiness. Rummel promises to sort out the colinearit problems.

Pete Boettke and Chris Coyne have posted a draft of a paper discussing a Austrian/Public Choice approach to the happiness lit. Chris points to his LibertyGuide review of Easterbrook’s book, and says something after my own heart:

There is one final point to be made regarding the underlying paradox which Easterbrook sets out to solve – perhaps there is no paradox at all. Most people would agree money and material things are not the equivalent of happiness. Given this, why would we expect to see a correlation between an increase in progress and an increase in happiness? It is not clear the claim has ever been that prosperity will lead to the removal of all uneasiness.

Right on.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center