This is the first of a two-part response to a friend’s Facebook comment on my “Wealth” blog. The questions raised by my friend are so interesting that I’ll address each in a separate blog. Here is the Facebook comment:
I agree with much of the sentiment (expressed in the Wealth blog). Let us apply some devil’s advocate to it anyways. If wealth does not necessarily create happiness, why endorse it so strongly? I mean, you say it increases standards of living, which is definitely true. But if people on average are not any happier despite a higher standard of living, then it seems to be a debatable good. Create enough wealth, and the people become fat and lazy, which is why historically, every civilization that has risen has eventually fallen as well.
Question One (Paraphrased): If wealth creation does not make people happy, why is it important, or why do you make a big deal of it? I have many answers, but to avoid another book-length blog I’ll mention only a couple.
Happiness is the means, not the end.
Our republic has proven (to the extent anything in the social sciences can be proven) that a national government fares better if it is constitutionally prevented from infringing on any of its law-abiding citizens’ inalienable right to pursue happiness. Allowing individuals to pursue their own happiness in a state with a reasonable level of property rights and rule of law has proven to be remarkably conducive to improvements over time in both quality of life and human relations.
Compare the lives and attitudes of people in 1789 and 2017. In 1789 there was a ubiquitous presence of human and animal excrement that was lightly treated, if at all. Even the rich had to maneuver around the horse poop in the streets. There was also nearly universal child labor, fear of famine, a lack of effective pain killers and cures, sparse to no understanding of microbes and toxins in drinking water, high infant and maternal mortality, and short life expectancy. There was much more depravity, but you get the picture.
Many authors have chronicled the downsides of industrialization and its attendant wealth creation, and some make good points. I think, however, that human life and culture is enhanced by wealth and that the sooner wealth is created, the better.
On the human relations front, the percentage of the population that was racist, sexist, anti-gay, xenophobic, and religiously intolerant was much larger in 1789 than now. Nevertheless, people then like people today had some happy days and times. They probably rarely counted their blessings as to how much better off they were than the people who experienced the Black Death a few centuries earlier—just like people now rarely think about how much better things are today than they were in 1789. Humans in all times tend not to focus on the good things in life. Instead, they seek out and dwell on the things that make them unhappy.
It is not the government’s role to pursue the impossible, i.e., to make people happy. It is the government’s role to let citizens pursue their own happiness and to create an environment where people can reasonably hope things will get better. Hope is a big motivation for people to make things better, but it dwindles when things are stagnant. Hope and feelings of self-worth and contentment are fostered when people produce goods and services that are useful to and valued by their fellow humans. Idle hands give people extra time to count their misgivings and dwell on the negatives. Without hope, people not only flourish less, but they also dream up excuses about why they are not participating in good things like others in society, and this usually involves demonizing other people. Calling out people who are doing harm is fine, but demonizing people who are not doing harm or are doing is good is bad for everyone.
In general, the more rapidly wealth is created, the fewer people are forced into the unhappiness of idleness. If there is hope that better times are around the corner, more people will participate in the human enterprise of trying to make life better for others (something that every job does), and they will feel better about themselves. Will they be constantly happy? No. Will they be happy more often? Probably, but happiness is far less important than feeling that one is doing something positive for others. It is the pursuit of happiness, not obtaining it, that does the trick.