15 June 2007


Over at Think of England, I pointed to this comment, but I wanted to note it here, too, because it is such a perfect example of a point of view that, had I not run up against it time after time, I would absolutely deny that any human being could hold. This is just completely foreign to me:
This interesting article misses a basic aspect of the human experience. For better or worse, we are relative creatures whose sense of identity and well-being is derived through comparing ourselves to others.

If you accept that one of the functions of civil society is to strive to maximize the happiness and well-being of its citizens(which I do), then these charts point to happier people in Europe (as is shown in clinical studies). The absolute scale, once basic safety and survial is accomplished, is almost irrelevant.

Given the comparative nature of human psychology, the bottom 10% in the US will be miserable, and the middle will feel cheated. French peasants in 1789 were presumably materially better off than Kalahari Bushmen, but relatively they were destitute. The absolute prosperity of French peasants did not deter them from revolution.

Granting outsize income to outsize effort may maximize GDP in the short run, but societies can rationally choose to balance maximal overall output with moderating inequality. From the perspective of human happinenss (the only one that actually matters in my book), Europe's model is more successful.
It would be better to make everyone poorer, because the absence of rich people makes poor people happier.


Brit said...

It seems to boil down to this: all policies must ultimately be driven by the need to protect people from the temptation to envy.

Is this not right?

Bret said...

"It would be better to make everyone poorer, because the absence of rich people makes poor people happier."

I don't think that conclusion necessarily follows from the comment. Notice the comment says that the absolute scale is "almost" irrelevant, which means it's at least a little bit relevant. Therefore, I'd imagine that the commenter would hope for some balance between maximizing wealth and minimizing envy. I can certainly understand the appeal of that, even though I don't personally think it's a good idea to implement it through policy. But hey, if Europeans are clinically happier because they minimize envy, and that's what's important to them, that's great for them and they're welcome to it as far as I'm concerned.

Let me ask this. Have you never felt envy in your entire life? If you hadn't felt envy, wouldn't have you been happier?

Duck said...

Envy is a fixed component of human nature. I'd no longer give the state the task of minimizing envy as I would the task of minimizing lust.

Americans have consistently seen government social spending as ensuring a safety net by defining a minimum standard of financial support for all citizens. The "pursuit of happiness" is strictly a self serve activity here, as it should be.

The irony of the relative poverty advocacy is that it actually adds to the problem it intends to solve. Psychic poverty is all a matter of attitude. If you feel poor, you're poor no matter how well your basic needs are provided for.

When the relative poverty folks come to your door and say "you're poor, and we're here to help", they've just confirmed your worst fears, and they've sealed in your shame by making you a dependent on their largesse. You can't get self esteem from the dole, it's oxymoronic.

Bret said...

I think that the trick is to hide the fact that you're on the dole. For example, if you have a minimum wage job, are you on the dole? If you're paying 1/100 as much in taxes as someone else, are you on the dole?

David said...

No, I've never felt envy, unless you mean, "Hey, that's a cool car. I wish I had one," which has never stayed with me for more than a few seconds and has never made me less happy. (Actually, somewhat the opposite. There's a pretty woman who drives around town on sunny days in a Boxster with the top down. That makes me happy.)

And I have to say that envy serious enough to effect your subjective happiness meaningfully is a psychiatric disorder and not a basis for policy. Also, I think that those studies are studying satisfaction, rather than happiness, and satisfaction is unAmerican.

As for your questions for Duck, the answers are "No" and "No."

Bret said...

Well, now that I think about it, I suppose my answers to my own question are also "No" and "No" but I definitely know people for which I think the answers are "DEFINITELY" and "DEFINITELY". Most of them are women, I wonder why?

Oroborous said...

What "brianbackus", the author of the comment, fails to note is that even if one accepts that Europeans are happier than Americans, (and I don't, I agree with David), the policies that make them happier amount to stealing resources from their children and grandchildren.

Those policies are a one-off, designed to maximize the happiness of ONE generation, and cannot be sustained.

So although brianbackus apparently doesn't realize this, most Europeans are happy thieves, which is far from a good precedent.

Let us see what the relative levels of happiness are betwixt Europe and America in twenty years' time.

Bret said...

oroborous wrote: "...the policies that make them happier amount to stealing resources from their children and grandchildren."

What children? :-)