The United States Declaration of Independence states that it is a “self evident truth” that we all have an “inalienable right” to “the pursuit of happiness,” the key word, being “pursuit.” Our founding document doesn’t decide what that means for people, but presumes that each individual has the maturity–and should have the liberty–to decide for themselves.
But our modern social engineers and members of what is sometimes called “the ruling class,” are turning the concept of the “pursuit of happiness” on its head. Some apparently think that governments should decide what makes people happy, and then pursue policies that seek to produce greater amounts of government-defined happiness.
Bhutan has such a policy of increasing “gross domestic happiness” as a government policy. Peter Singer has taken a look and likes the idea. From his piece in Project Sydicate, asking, “Can We Increase Gross National Happiness?”
Can we learn how to measure happiness? The Center for Bhutan Studies, set up by the Bhutanese government 12 years ago, is currently processing the results of interviews with more than 8,000 Bhutanese. The interviews recorded both subjective factors, such as how satisfied respondents are with their lives, and objective factors, like standard of living, health, and education, as well as participation in culture, community vitality, ecological health, and the balance between work and other activities. It remains to be seen whether such diverse factors correlate well with each other. Trying to reduce them to a single number will require some difficult value judgments.
Bhutan has a Gross National Happiness Commission, chaired by the prime minister, which screens all new policy proposals put forward by government ministries. If a policy is found to be contrary to the goal of promoting gross national happiness, it is sent back to the ministry for reconsideration. Without the Commission’s approval, it cannot go ahead.
Singer wants the international community taking Bhutan’s ball and running with it:
Last July, the UN General Assembly passed, without dissent, a Bhutanese-initiated resolution recognizing the pursuit of happiness as a fundamental human goal and noting that this goal is not reflected in GDP. The resolution invited member states to develop additional measures that better capture the goal of happiness. The General Assembly also welcomed an offer from Bhutan to convene a panel discussion on the theme of happiness and well-being during its 66th session, which opens this month. These discussions are part of a growing international movement to re-orient government policies towards well-being and happiness. We should wish the effort well, and hope that ultimately the goal becomes global, rather than merely national, happiness.
Absolutely not! That is a prescription for restricting freedom in the name of pursuing a governmental definition of happiness.
The UK is actually flirting with a version of this idea, which I criticized. But the USA was not designed to be a utilitarian nation, a la Singer’s beliefs, or one in which the government defines happiness for us. Indeed, when the USA was established, happiness was conceived to be an individual pursuit to be protected from intrusive government. In other words, we are free to figure out for ourselves what makes us happy and go after it (subject to reasonable legal parameters).
I don’t see any reason to change that formula now. Having the government–or even worse, the international community–institute policies based on happiness, would just be another vehicle for usurping power from individuals and placing it into the hands of international bureaucrats–and by so doing, materially erode each of our liberty to engage in its actual pursuit.