For the last decade, some social scientists have been arguing that happiness measurements should replace or supplement established economic standards to judge a societys success. Many environmentalists also support the idea as a way of putting lipstick on policies that could slow down economic growth. And now, the idea is deemed ready to leave the ivory tower for implementation as government policy.
One can understand the appeal for the ruling elite and their camp followers of consultants and lobbyists. If government assumes the power to promote happiness, officials would have to consult with experts to figure out criteria by which a societys gross happiness index could be measured. (As we will see below, that process has already started.) Once these standards were determined, a new bureaucracy would have to be established”lets call it HAA, the Happiness Advancement Administration”to promote happiness goals and enforce happiness regulations. One could even imagine a presidential debate, in which the challenger looks into the camera and earnestly asks, Has your government made you happier today than you were four years ago?
We have already started down Happiness Road. Bhutan recently established a National Happiness Commission, chaired by the prime minster, which must give all legislation a happiness seal of approval before it can become law.
One could shrug off Bhutans law as a consequence of the altitude. But the United Nations General Assembly unanimously passed a resolution in 2011 calling on all member states to promulgate national standards of happiness. The resolution states that gross domestic product . . . does not adequately reflect the happiness and well-being of people in a country and that sustainable development and a more inclusive, equitable and balanced approach to economic growth will best encourage the happiness and well-being of all peoples. Sounds like a prescription for wealth redistribution and rationalizing reduced prosperity to me.
An article published in National Affairs reported that the twenty-seven nations of the European Union also plan to move beyond GDP, complementing their official measures of economic output with measures of well-being drawn from happiness literature. What better way to divert our attention from declining standards of living than to have government and the media trumpet proud claims of improved collective happiness?
The Obama administration has joined in. The Department of Health and Human Services has already gathered a body of experts, to devise reliable measures of subjective well-being, toward the end of turning these into official statistics. As reported by the Washington Post :
A measure of happiness could help assess the success or failure of a range of government policies. It could gauge the virtues of a health benefit or establish whether education has more value than simply higher incomes. It might also detect extremes of inequality or imbalances in how people divide their time between work and leisure.
You know the drill: Once government settles on happiness statistics, the next step will be to uncover a happiness crisis, requiring legislation and regulation”all facilitated by new bureaucracies to close the happiness gap, and promote happiness equality. In short, the government will grow like Jacks beanstalk. Perhaps the HAA is closer than we think.
Establishing official happiness goals could enable the government to punish or suppress activities deemed by bureaucrats to be the causes of unhappiness while concomitantly requiring the private sector to act in ways deemed necessary to improve national happiness scores. As just one example, happiness could become a prime measurement of wellness , potentially opening the doors for ever more intrusive regulations under the Affordable Care Act as part of the legal requirement placed on the government to cut medical costs.
This worry isnt entirely speculative. The government already requires business owners to provide their female workers with free birth control and sterilization surgeries”even when it violates their religious beliefs”based on the legal claim that the government has the duty to promote gender equality, surely a potential future measure of happiness.
The Declaration of Independence proclaims that we each have an inalienable and individual right to pursue happiness. It does not say we have right to be happy. Nor does it presume that it is the governments job to make us happy. Rather, it is the right of the people to establish government that is sufficiently limited to allow each of us sufficient room for the quest”a governing philosophy that created greater freedom and general prosperity than at any other time in human history.
Lets not abandon that successful formula now. The difference between a government that stays out of the way so we can pursue our own definitions of happiness and a government that presumes to measure and guarantee happiness on our behalf, is the distinction between liberty and happy-face statism.
Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institutes Center on Human Exceptionalism. He also consults for the Patients Rights Council and the Center for Bioethics and Culture. His previous On the Square articles can be found here .
Become a fan of First Things on Facebook , subscribe to First Things via RSS , and follow First Things on Twitter .