I just learned from the Heritage Foundation that the Obama Administration has created a panel to discuss establishing a measure to assess our national happiness.
The good people at Heritage have more than a few misgivings about this undertaking, and not just about our ability to assess happiness by means of social science. I applaud the recognition that there’s more to life than economic prosperity, that GDP is a deeply flawed measure of political health and success, but want no part of this undertaking.
Yes, the Declaration of Independence does assert that human beings by nature have a right to pursue happiness, but that surely doesn’t give our government the responsibility to assure our happiness. And you can be certain that anything the government starts to assess will sooner or later become an explicit object of public policy. We need to remember one of the things Alexis de Tocqueville feared the most: a government that “willingly works for [our] happiness; but…wants to be the unique agent and sole arbiter of that.”
I’d rather remind people that their happiness depends upon many things other than those that can be affected by public policy, some of which depend upon their own efforts and relationships, and others of which depend upon–speaking without any great theological sophistication here–divine providence. Properly understood, our pursuit of happiness is a limit on government, not a claim on it.
None of this is to say that government has nothing to do with our happiness. To take an obvious example, policies that excessively burden our liberty or depress private sector job creation might well affect our happiness. But we already have a way to register our response to those aspects of our happiness that can be affected by government. It’s called voting.