Wealth Creation. No Happiness, Why Bother?

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.

9 thoughts on “Wealth Creation. No Happiness, Why Bother?”

  1. Harvey, if I were the type to that’s inclined to give trigger warnings, I would say that if I misstate your position anywhere in this conversation, it’s only because I don’t have to time to go back and re-read everything and am mainly responding to my memory of what has been said so far. If such a mistake happens, please just gently remind me what your position actually was.

    I will also say that we are pondering some unanswerable questions, but some discussion is worthwhile anyways. We are also, (or at least I am), making no boundaries between ideal visions and real history. This topic is not entirely idle either though, because there are real consequences as to what values should be instilled in children.

    As I see it, your general theme is that people should view the wealthy, even the extremely Rockefeller level wealthy, as the best engine for betterment of all; to euphemize, the rising tide lifts all boats. The subtext is that the people at the lower rungs of the wealth ladder should celebrate and support these elite individuals instead of giving in to envy and “de-wealth” them, whether through revolution in the streets or more subtle formal democratic government policy.

    I am not directly leveling this criticism against your ideas yet, but there’s a subtext here that, to me, seems similar to why the creators of every ‘utopia’ always fail to understand why their creations fall apart. Either they believe in a system that is too contrary to fundamental human nature, or everything, even human societies, fall apart because of the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

    Wealth pursuit and peace of mind are in some sense opposing forces. There is simply no way to maximize both simultaneously. The only proof I offer for this hypothesis though is that real world history has shown all such utopias are pure fiction. The pursuit of wealth accumulation produces unhappiness; while the pursuit of peace of mind distracts from wealth creation efforts. (e.g. the individual who does yoga for 3 hours a day could obviously be more wealth productive by putting that time to a different use)

    With that background, I’ll address your specific criticisms of eastern cultures within your facebook comment.

    “My sense is that monastic / meditative cultures are far more likely to be conquered and subjugated than other cultures, i.e., they may not be as sustainable as materialistic cultures. ” I cannot agree or disagree with your ‘far more likely’ assessment. There is too much history for me to look through to see if this statement is statistically accurate. Conquest and subjugation seems to be very common across time and across the globe.

    “My ultimate defense to your sally is that monastic / meditative cultures have been around for many millenia. To my knowledge they have played little or no role in curing diseases, substantially alleviating the fear of famine, solving the scientific mysteries of the world, or invented the comforts, conveniences or entertainment which materialistic societies have produced.”

    Now here’s the rub. Meditative cultures HAVE been around for many millennia, especially across Asia. That level of persistence in and of itself strongly implies that there is something valuable and sustainable in the general paradigm, even if individual historical nations have fallen and I cannot adequately explain what the sustainability source is. The Japanese have the longest individual life expectancy in the world. The diets from India and SE asia generally result in much lower rates of the non-infectious diseases that plague western societies (such as heart disease/cancer/etc.) Just because this knowledge is ephemeral instead of expressed in scientific journals does not mean that very profound discoveries of the type you describe have not been made.

    To me, the value of wealth depends on what ends it is put to use towards. A wealth creation society can (and frequently has historically) evolve towards a scenario where the wealth is just being traded between members of an oligarchy and predominantly in the form of luxury goods while the masses are exploited and unhappy. It seems plausible to me that government could or maybe should have a role in ensuring that the collective wealth is being properly directed towards real knowledge and discovery instead of permitting an oligarchy to spend it mainly on luxury for each other.

    1. Amandeep,
      As usual, your comments are of very high quality.
      No unfair paraphrasing of what I said was detected. Neither did I significantly disagree with any of the facts you state in defense of meditative cultures.

      Note that I did not suggest meditative cultures were meritless or so unsustainable as to lead to immediate extermination. On the contrary, I acknowledged there was very likely good things to be learned from every culture – intending “every culture” to include meditative cultures. As to sustainability, I did not mean to suggest meditative cultures could not survive in some form, or to some degree the onslaughts of more fearsome cultures (such that none would still be left), i.e., I did not attempt to deny reality. Humans can take amazing beatings and, in smaller numbers, keep on ticking.

      Perhaps I suggested meditative cultures are not likely the next big thing, but who knows what the next big thing will be? Certainly not me. Additionally, the fact that so many people have chosen to leave more meditative cultures in favor of being a subculture in more sustainable cultures may say something about the sustainability of more meditative cultures.

      Contrary to what you said, I suggested meditative cultures (at least these days) do relatively more freeloading on other cultures than non-meditative cultures do, and that freeloading culture are generally less sustainable than non-freeloading cultures. While such cultures may be far more worthy on other dimensions, it is a demerit that they do not carry their fair share of the load of inventing, developing, producing and making available the modern marvels used by the people of meditative cultures.
      I do take issue with the two things you suggest I suggested: That my opposition to demonizing (as oppose to fair and accurate criticizing) the wealthy and forcing them to carry an excessive portion of the burdens of government is utopian; and that I argued that wealth creation would make the people producing the wealth or anyone else in the culture happy.

      There is no avoiding the fact that regardless of the economic and cultural regimes in place anywhere, we are humans which are incapable of forming perfect unions or cultures. Fundamentally, life is a struggle before you die – everywhere and always for everyone, and always will be. I was describing what I thought would lessen the struggle and extend lives by improving peoples’ standard of living. Because of the state of nature and the nature of humans, I believe utopia is impossible in theory. I also believe chasing utopia usually causes more problems than it solves; but that is the subject of a different blog.

      As I have stated in many ways, people will find reasons to be unhappy regardless of their standard of living. [There are religions, philosophies and self-help books to address those problems, but I do not write them.] There are miserable wealthy people and happy poor people. My prescription as to how to improve standards of living is not focused on making people happy. In fact, some people’s happiness goes up when they demonize wealthy people. So my prescription for improving people’s standard of living has nothing to do with their happiness. With every government action some people will be made happier and others less happy, while many other will be oblivious (some because they are mad or happy about something else). Government cannot “make the people happy.” Moreover, it is not government’s job to make people happy. The American experiment was to have a government which, with limited exceptions, stayed out of the way of people pursuing their own happiness. As far as I know a better approach to government has yet to be devised. It is a real shame Americans have elected people who keep moving farther and farther from that ideal. That ideal, however, never promised a rose garden or a utopia in which everyone is happy.

      You may be correct that with the way people think now, the mob would not tolerate good governance, would not let it work its wonders. This just proves the founders correct. They said the republic could not survive with an ignorant citizenry. Hopefully you, I and many others are helping address that problem.

  2. On Feb 11 Amandeep Singh Sandhawalia and I had a conversation on Facebook. I paste here Amandeep’s comment, and below that my reply.

    Harvey I finally had some time to read it and think a little. What you say is very compelling, and certainly more compelling than most of the alternative visions floating around in the political sphere today. I am not ready to be completely convinced yet though, because there is one alternative that you have not yet conquered – the monastic / meditative life.

    I do not mean western guilt and fear based religions, but rather eastern philosophies who encourage detachment and de-emphasis of material wealth in favor of securing peace of mind. For the most part, these cultures have had a much more harmonius and less violent history than the wealth oriented western societies. Why do you feel that sort of focus would not be superior?

    Amandeep Singh Sandhawalia, Thank you for taking the time to read the blog, thinking about it and asking such a penetrating question.

    I will think about it more, and say more if I think of more worth saying. Here, however, is my immediate response:

    I proceed with a faith that all cultures have something worthy to offer to humanity. The monastic/meditative life certainly has merits. While I cannot confirm them, I have little doubt they have the fine features you mention.

    My sense is that monastic / meditative cultures are far more likely to be conquered and subjugated than other cultures, i.e., they may not be as sustainable as materialistic cultures.

    Not that being subjugated can necessarily be avoided. For example, I suspect the monastic / meditative cultures offered much less resistance to the Mongols than did more materialistic cultures, but they both met the same fate. [The were both wiped out, or nearly so.]

    Folding like a lawn chair in the face of violence can, however, be beneficial over the long haul. For example, had France not folded like a lawn chair when the Nazis attacked, the treasure we know as Paris would have been bombarded to rubble. On the other hand, had strong materialistic nations not ultimately crushed the Germans, my guess is the world would be a much worse place than it is today.

    My ultimate defense to your sally is that monastic / meditative cultures have been around for many millenia. To my knowledge they have played little or no role in curing diseases, substantially alleviating the fear of famine, solving the scientific mysteries of the world, or invented the comforts, conveniences or entertainment which materialistic societies have produced.

    Is one better than the other. It is hard to say. It is not hard to see, however, that vastly more people have voted with their feet away from monastic / meditative lives to more materialistic lives. This and the fact that you have voted with your feet, is some evidence that my emphasis on wealth creation is warranted.

  3. […] Author’s Note: A year ago today in the midst of the presidential campaign,[i] I posted the comment below on Facebook. I’m reposting it (with slight edits and insertions of citations) here because it extends my remarks in an earlier blog post, “Two Paths for America,” and it is relevant to the discussion of Steve Roth’s article. Though I did not specifically mention it in last year’s post, “massive redistribution” is part and parcel of “Option B” as described below. As will become obvious, I believe “Option A” is more beneficial to the poor than “Option B” (Despite the fact that while Option A will make them wealthier than Option B, it will not necessarily make the poor happier. (See “Wealth Creation. No Happiness, Why Bother?”) […]

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