The Politics of Happiness

The Ethics and Politics of Happiness

1. Introduction

Thank you very much.

 I am interested in looking at this question – what would be a sensible way to think about the politics of happiness?

In Anglo-America, two groups have tended to dominate the debate on happiness. One group thinks the state should intervene to promote a ‘happiness agenda’. One group thinks that the state should create the conditions in which individuals can seek happiness on their own terms. 

These two schools of thought to some extent map onto the left-right spectrum in mainstream Anglo-American politics – neoliberalism on the one hand (in the neutral sense of a renovated Scottish liberalism) and New Deal liberalism on the other. Glossed as Friedman and Keynes they define the terms of ordinary controversy in economics, for example.

The debate about the politics of happiness tends to revolve around the merits of individual freedom and government intervention on the other.

But there is another way of thinking about the politics of happiness that starts from different premises, and I think it can help us in the work of creating more equal and happier societies.

2. Liberalism Broadly Defined

Before I sketch this alternative, I’ll say a little more about the Anglo-American liberal tradition and its implications for our thinking about happiness.

The liberalism we associate with the Scottish Enlightenment sees happiness as an essentially private possession, secured by individuals left alone by the state. The state has a role in establishing the conditions in which humans can flourish – upholding the rule of law and defending the population from external threats, providing a stable currency, and so on. But conniving bureaucrats and canting statesmen are always on hand to siphon off the wealth created by others.

In this liberal tradition the form of the state matters much less than the freedom it affords its subjects. In an argument that derives from Thomas Hobbes generations of English and American liberals have claimed that the rule of law and the guarantee of a private sphere of free association and free market exchange underpin the only liberty that really matters; the freedom to pursue one’s own lawful projects without arbitrary interference from the state or from one’s fellow citizens. Let me quote Hobbes himself, in a famous section from the Leviathan:

There is written on the turrets of the city of Lucca in great characters at this day, the word LIBERTAS; yet no man can thence infer, that a particular man has more liberty, or immunity from the service of the commonwealth there, than in Constantinople. Whether a commonwealth be monarchical, or popular, the freedom is still the same.

‘The freedom is still the same’ – freedom is understood in negative terms, as the absence of impediments to what we have a mind to do. Meanwhile happiness is a private achievement, possible in a monarchy as much as in a republic.

It follows that, in Isaiah Berlin’s words, ‘a frontier must be drawn between the area of private life and that of public authority’. Attempts by the state to promote human well-being always risk tipping into tyranny of one kind or another. Berlin, I think, would have shivered at the idea of a politics of happiness, hearing in it an echo of the totalitarian insistence on regular bouts of mass ecstasy.

3. The Public Service Ethic and Happiness

The statist alternative to free market liberalism develops as a response to the social stresses caused by industrialization; emerging from the public service ethos of the late eighteenth century this variant on the Anglo-American tradition recognizes the need for a regulatory and interventionist state, to address market failure and – more expansively – to curb the worst excesses of capitalism. It is a tradition of disinterested and technocratic expertise and bureaucratic rationality. In Britain reformers begin to interfere with the market economy from the abolition of slavery onwards the 1830s and move to transform society from the 1870s onwards. A generation or so later in the United States Woodrow Wilson argues for a ‘new freedom’, in which government engages with the impersonal systems of corporate and financial power and shapes them in the interests of the nation as a whole.

The liberalism of minimal intervention proves unequal to the tasks of modernization and international competition. Public service liberalism, especially after 1929, qualifies it and, paradoxically, saves it from its own contradictions.

But it is more accurate to talk here of the administration, rather than the politics, of happiness.

4. The Roman Way with Happiness

The alternative approach to the politics of happiness I will call the Roman tradition of classical republicanism. So British and American liberty is to be contrasted with libertas.

When in Rome, praise Rome, as early and often as possible.

When Hobbes wrote as he did, he was rejecting this Roman tradition and its central assumption that an intimate connection exists between individual flourishing and constitutional forms.

In this Roman tradition happiness is understood as a product, or by-product, of collective action in the public world; participation in the formation of the state establishes man as a fully human being – this being the point of Aristotle’s famous comment that man is an animal that lives in (self-governing) cities.

(And it is men, propertied men in particular, who create and police this tradition, a point to which I will return.)

For Aristotle, as for the Romans, happiness was properly speaking something that might be achieved only by the free citizens of republics. Slaves might be content. Women and children might be content. But a state of simple satisfaction of desires did not constitute happiness, since their fortunate state did not depend, and could not depend, on their own exertions.

To try to distinguish between the realm of happiness and politics was to make a fundamental error. The polis made the ethical life – or, in modern terms, happiness – possible by giving substance to the notion of freedom. Freedom is more than the absence of constraint. Freedom is the reasonable expectation that one will remain free from constraint as a consequence of one’s own actions. In other words, freedom is the power to shape the state and through it the conditions of our shared life.

Freedom is not a possession, it is a kind of action.

It is only through the exercise of this power that the vegetable enjoyment of clement conditions becomes the properly human experience of happiness, of what Aristotle calls eudaimonia.

English political thought breaks with this classical tradition in the period after the failure of the Commonwealth in the seventeenth century. From Hobbes we can trace a line to Hume and Smith and on to the free market liberalism that dominated Anglo-American politics from around 1980 until 2008. The statist liberalism that both qualifies and sustains free market liberalism comes and goes in both countries, reaching a peak in the mid-twentieth century and receding in the 1970s.

(The dismantling of the postwar consensus can be seen as a response to the worryingly Roman nature of the moves towards social and political emancipation that become so prominent in the 1960s. The architects of the rightward turn sound weirdly like the seventeenth century pamphleteers when they worry about the growing confidence of women, minorities, and men without property. Samuel Huntington gives the game away, perhaps, when he talks of ‘a distemper of democracy’, echoing Thomas Gordon’s warning that free states could succumb to ‘a Distemper arising from too much health’.)


5. Conclusions: Happiness as a Constitutional Achievement

In the past public servants working in the liberal tradition – and, it must be added, industrialists motivated by the prizes to won through competition in liberal markets – did a great deal to improve human welfare.

From the 1930s to the mid-70s activist governments in Britain and the United States redistributed surpluses and pursued policies that reduced the impact of inequality.

It is tempting to believe that a new generation of public servants, imbued with the values of great liberal administrators like Keynes and Galbraith, will revive this tradition of reforming liberalism.

But there are problems with this idea. At present Keynesian arguments are being used to justify a gigantic public bailout of the private institutions that incubated a crisis in financial system.

So it is time to ask whether liberalism’s double helix of rational administration and competition in free markets has finally unraveled.  Whether we should think in terms of a properly republican state, where all of us contribute directly to the content of public life.

What would that mean in practice? The absence of a public culture that connects reliably with observable reality is itself a source of individual stress. It is, I would argue, the architectonic failing in our current arrangements, since it facilitates all the others.

Consider Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s work, the work of Daniel Dorling, Tim Kasser and others; those who have found strong evidence for the hypothesis that the individual’s chances for happiness depend on the structure of society as well as their own choices. At present these researchers rely on a mix of public and private institutions for publicity, all of which are more or less insulated against popular participation in decision-making about who gains what level of exposure and attention in the marketplace of ideas.

An important step towards a functioning politics of happiness would be a system of direct citizen participation in the allocation of research resources and publicity, since it would give the public the means to generate and revise its own opinions in the light of the best available accounts of the world.

All of us who are persuaded by Professor Wilkinson, all of us who disagree with him, should have powers to promote or challenge his ideas in ways that can expect to command the attention of out fellow citizens. Not a right to be heard, but a right to contribute as equals to decisions about what is heard, and seen and read.

So that is what I propose – not a marketplace of ideas, or the state as the arbiter of rationality – but a republic of descriptions, in which we can begin at last to find the necessary conditions for, and the inevitable limits, of human happiness. 

The British Embassy,


13 May, 2010


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