Sunday, February 12, 2006

If You Can't Be Happy

I am currently reading Jon Krakauer's fascinating and terrifying book about Mormon fundamentalism, Under the Banner of Heaven. One of the final paragraphs of the book struck a chord with me in light of the ongoing happiness-as-public-policy discussion going on in some circles. The crux of this debate is that evidence shows that there has not been significant gains in happiness over time, despite our vast increases in wealth over the same period. Therefore, this has caused some to conclude that government policy aimed at economic growth is misdirected, since this increase in our wealth isn't making us appreciably happier. Now, I think this is a misguided analysis, for a number of reasons Will Wilkinson often points out. But the passage from the Krakauer book touches on this issue in a slightly different way. A former fundamentalist Mormon (part of a group that split from the mainstream Church of Latter-Day Saints), LeRoy Bateman had this to say while reflecting on the fundamentalist community of which he is a part:

"I think people within the religion - people who live here in Colorado City - are probably happier, on the whole, than people on the outside."

There's a good chance he's correct with this ignorance-is-bliss observation. But I doubt many of the academics advocating a move towards happiness-based governing would support the creation of a strict religious society where the average person is almost completely controlled by the leaders. Someone like LeRoy Bateman might have some valuable insight into how much power you want to centralize, and what the objectives of those in power will be. Even if you disagree with economic growth as the primary goal of government policy, it is tough to justify maximizing happiness as a more worthy objective. As I have learned the hard way in my personal life, trying to make everyone happy is exceedingly difficult and is an effort doomed to end in failure, and often heartbreak. To those who want to hand our most personal decisions - what we put into our bodies, whom we marry, how we save for our future, and who makes the decisions about our health care - over to the government, I ask you this: do we really want the government deciding what makes us happy? Because even if they get it right, which is likely an impossible task, that's not really the be-all and end-all. As LeRoy Bateman concludes:

"But some things in life are more important than being happy. Like being free to think for yourself."


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