Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Please Please Me

Cato Unbound: Why Societies Should Pursue Happiness

Those who have been reading for a while may remember my fondness for Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less and The Costs of Living. So you can imagine my delight when I discovered, after reading--and disagreeing with much of--Darrin McMahon's essay, "The Pursuit of Happiness in Perspective," that Schwartz had written a response (linked above). McMahon argues that our relentless pursuit of happiness is actually making well-off Westerners less happy, and he has a point; on The Sopranos, Melfi discusses this very topic with Tony and explains that he is part of the first group of people with the means to worry about what makes them happy rather than how to ensure that they have food and shelter.

Schwartz sees the flaw in McMahon's argument, though. McMahon, he says, conflates the pursuit of happiness with the pursuit of pleasure. He isn't alone, of course, and Schwartz considers this at length:
Why is it true that most people equate happiness with pleasure? Here’s my hypothesis: What we have nowadays in the developed western world is unbridled individualism coupled with extraordinary materialism. Life is about what you have, not what you do, and it’s about what you have, not what we have. What else can the pursuit of happiness mean to citizens like this except the pursuit of pleasure?

Then the question becomes: Why are we a collection of individualistic materialists? My answer is that it’s a by-product of the success of free-market capitalism. It is the pursuit of wealth, individually and collectively, that has induced us to equate happiness with pleasure. Benjamin Barber makes this point with great force in his new book, Consumed. The problem for modern capitalism, Barber notes, is that these days, “the needy are without income, and the well-heeled are without needs.” The task of modern economic players is to create needs in people who can afford to satisfy them, and doing that turns us into infantilized pleasure-seekers. No one is going to get rich in a society full of seekers of human excellence.
He's right, isn't he? What the leading Democrats--Clinton, Obama, and Edwards--need to figure out is how to offer this critique of the current state of American capitalism without making voters feel insulted. The excesses of capitalism are the reason why American health care is a mess, for instance; the idea that everyone is meant to fend for him or herself entirely, that the Bible and not Ben Franklin said that God would help those that help themselves, is the reason we accept such travesties as a person who works full-time but can't afford to see a doctor or raise a family in the richest nation in the history of the world. It's high time candidates for president said so.

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