Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The happiness of pursuit.(The Battle: How the Fight Between Free Enterprise and Big Government Will Shape America's Future)(Book review).


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When he was 19 years old, Arthur C. Brooks dropped out of college to play the French horn. He and his friends formed a quintet and toured the country playing chamber music. The work was demanding and not at all lucrative. But Brooks loved every minute. Music was his vocation. After six years, he left the quintet and joined a symphony orchestra in Spain. The opportunity was exciting. Here was Brooks's chance for a well-paying job in a beautiful country.

It turned out to be a bust. Brooks hated the experience. It took him a couple of decades, and a Ph.D. from the RAND graduate school, to figure out why. "The answer was control," he writes in this slim and provocative book. The quintet gave him the freedom to choose which music he wanted to play and where he wanted to play it. In the orchestra, however, he had to obey the conductor. "The more control you have over your life," Brooks writes, "the more responsible you feel for your own success (or failure). And as we've seen, the more you feel you've earned your success, the happier your life will be."

Happiness is of more than personal interest to Brooks, whose day job is president of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. Not only is this his second book on happiness (the first was Gross National Happiness, published in 2008), it's his most political book. His purpose is to defend American free enterprise against its critics. What is free enterprise? Brooks writes that it is "the system of values and laws that respects private property, encourages industry, celebrates liberty, limits government, and creates individual opportunity." The system enjoys the support of about 70 percent of the people. But it is under attack.

About 30 percent of the public, Brooks writes, believes that free enterprise is unfair and the government ought to do more to ensure equal outcomes. Brooks calls this group the "30 percent coalition." What the 30 percent coalition lacks in numbers, it makes up in political power. President Obama is a member of this coalition, as are Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, and practically every college professor and journalist in the country.

The 30 percent coalition is obsessed with a measure of income inequality known as the Gini coefficient. Coalition members find it intolerable that America's Gini is about where it was prior to the Great Depression. The way to make America a just society, they say, is for the government to put the Gini back in the bottle by redistributing income. Hence the health-care bill, high taxes, Social Security, and subsidies for everything from housing to education to food.

The typical conservative response is that redistribution is inefficient, or unfair to those from whom the money is taken, or a recipe for unlimited government. But Brooks goes in a different direction. He says the 30 percent coalition is wrong because its policies cause unhappiness. It is not inequality, Brooks writes, that makes people unhappy. It is a lack of self-worth. It is the feeling that success is unearned. And "if money without earned success does not bring happiness," Brooks writes, "then redistributing money won't make for a happier America."


Brooks defines earned success as "the ability to create value honestly." He writes that it fosters optimism, meaning, and a sense of control. He wants all people to enjoy their own equivalent of playing French horn in a chamber quintet, rather than having to play in a government-funded orchestra conducted by Barack Obama.

Consider labor markets. "In free markets" such as ours, Brooks writes, "we can change jobs, work longer or shorter hours within reason, and take more or less vacation than other people." The freedom to choose, and to succeed or fail based on individual initiative, is an incentive to improve one's condition--and this incentive is conducive to happiness. The data show that Americans like to work. We are more satisfied with our jobs than the Spanish, Germans, French, and British, who live in heavily unionized and regulated labor markets that suffer from chronically high unemployment.

What distinguishes The Battle from other conservative manifestos is its abundance of empirical data. Liberals love to mock the conservative tendency to argue from principle, as though principle were a bad thing. Brooks is not only open about his principles, he has the polling numbers and social science to back them up. He cites economic research that explains why high taxes discourage work, saving, investment, and growth. He compares the Heritage Foundation's 2010 Index of Economic Freedom with various indices of national happiness, and discovers that "a one-point increase in economic freedom is associated with a two-point rise in the percentage of the population saying they are completely happy or very happy."

Human beings are more than variables in a government economist's formula. They have needs and feelings that do not show up in the Congressional Budget Office's income-distribution charts. They do not bend so easily to the wishes of intellectuals. It's important for them to feel that they've earned their keep. For example, Brooks cites a 1978 study in which lottery winners were interviewed years after they had cashed in. The study found that winning the lottery is good for a short-term dopamine boost, but not much else. Within months, the winners felt the same as they did before.

Or consider welfare. In 2001, the University of Michigan's Panel Study of Income Dynamics noticed a correlation between welfare dependency and sadness. The panel found that going on the dole increased the chances of feeling "inconsolably sad" by 16 percent. "Welfare recipients," Brooks writes, "are far unhappier than equally poor people who do not get welfare checks." And while Brooks is quick to point out that correlation is not causation, the data certainly suggest that welfare doesn't make you any happier. The anecdotal evidence suggests the same thing: Look at the turbulent and dysfunctional lives of the underclass.

The idea that earned success creates a happy society raises an interesting question: What would a happiness-based government look like? Brooks is more analytical than prescriptive, but that won't stop me from pretending I'm king for a day. So: A happiness-based government would means-test benefits. It would tax consumption and things we want less of (pollution, congestion) rather than payrolls and incomes. And since the focus would be on earned wealth, it would be open to taxing forms of unearned wealth such as inheritances, gifts, interest, and dividends (at flat, equivalent rates). Right now, after all, the top capital-gains tax rate is lower than the top rate for income, and the estate tax is dead until 2011. If Brooks is right, then these incentives will not promote happiness--especially the one that involves dying before New Year's.

Happiness-based governance would produce a free, prosperous, and pleasant society. But it would also tolerate in equalities. Not everyone would enjoy the same standard of living. Some people's health care, education, work, and retirement would be better than others'.

For this reason, Brooks might be talking past the members of the 30 percent coalition. For them, the mark of a just society is the equal distribution of public goods. Notice that the word "happiness" does not appear in the previous sentence.

All the empirical data in the world might not be enough to convince liberals they are wrong. Why? Because liberals, like everyone else, base their politics on a theory of justice. In their case, the theory says that no society should tolerate inequalities that do not benefit the least fortunate of its members. Now, in my opinion, some of the inequalities associated with free enterprise do benefit the least fortunate of society's members, because free enterprise enriches society in the aggregate and protects individual liberty. Furthermore, the Gini coefficient is not the most important test of a just society. You can easily imagine countries where everyone possesses the same material goods but the government does not protect the rights of its citizens. In fact, it isn't even necessary to imagine such places. The history books are full of them.

The positive consequences of liberty are many and wonderful. But ultimately, it is hard to defend liberty against the utopian ideal of equality unless liberty is also seen as an end in itself. Arthur C. Brooks describes the players, outlines the stakes, and marshals the evidence that free enterprise produces richer, happier polities. It's quite an achievement. But to win the battle, conservatives also will require a theory of justice and the good society as compelling and attractive as the liberal vision that motivates the president and intelligentsia.

Where to find it? Google "Declaration of Independence," "U.S. Constitution," and "The Federalist," and you will be well on your way.

Mr. Continetti is the associate editor of The Weekly Standard and author, most recently, of The Persecution of Sarah Palin.

Named Works: The Battle: How the Fight Between Free Enterprise and Big Government Will Shape America's Future (Nonfiction work) Book reviews

Source Citation
Continetti, Matthew. "The happiness of pursuit." National Review 21 June 2010: 43. General OneFile. Web. 9 Nov. 2010.
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