The Happiness of the People

Sunday, March 15th, 2009 12:55 pm by Neal

Charles Murray gave a speech this week at the American Enterprise Institute. While the speech is about the cultural and psychological causes of happiness, he decimates the European model through a comparison of those causes and the actual effects of European democracies.

There’s been an ongoing debate on the speech over at the National Review’s “The Corner,” and it’s been pretty fascinating stuff. The most consistent disagreement with the speech concerns Murray’s “wild optimism” that changes in science will cause the “elites” (the ruling intelligentsia) to change their views on certain social policies such as affirmative action or to re-think their obsession with equality in the face of inherent, genetic differences between men and women (think the Larry Summers brouhaha).

Murray defended his prediction at the Corner. It’s an interesting response.

We think Murray is overly optimistic in that regard, mainly because the elites have a staggering capacity for ignoring science (including economics) when it contradicts their world view and philosphy (think global warming). Nonetheless, if science eventually decimates the whole notion of “equality of outcome” that defines the bulk of liberal/progressive philosphy, it will be a wonderful thing indeed.

Murray’s speech is something that no one should miss. It is wonderful. Here’s an excerpt and link to the entire speech.

From “The Happiness of the People”:

First, the problem with the European model, namely: It drains too much of the life from life. And that statement applies as much to the lives of janitors—even more to the lives of janitors—as it does to the lives of CEOs.

I start from this premise: A human life can have transcendent meaning, with transcendence defined either by one of the world’s great religions or one of the world’s great secular philosophies. If transcendence is too big a word, let me put it another way: I suspect that almost all of you agree that the phrase “a life well-lived” has meaning. That’s the phrase I’ll use from now on.

And since happiness is a word that gets thrown around too casually, the phrase I’ll use from now on is “deep satisfactions.” I’m talking about the kinds of things that we look back upon when we reach old age and let us decide that we can be proud of who we have been and what we have done. Or not.

To become a source of deep satisfaction, a human activity has to meet some stringent requirements. It has to have been important (we don’t get deep satisfaction from trivial things). You have to have put a lot of effort into it (hence the cliché “nothing worth having comes easily”). And you have to have been responsible for the consequences.

There aren’t many activities in life that can satisfy those three requirements. Having been a good parent. That qualifies. A good marriage. That qualifies. Having been a good neighbor and good friend to those whose lives intersected with yours. That qualifies. And having been really good at something—good at something that drew the most from your abilities. That qualifies. Let me put it formally: If we ask what are the institutions through which human beings achieve deep satisfactions in life, the answer is that there are just four: family, community, vocation, and faith. Two clarifications: “Community” can embrace people who are scattered geographically. “Vocation” can include avocations or causes.

It is not necessary for any individual to make use of all four institutions, nor do I array them in a hierarchy. I merely assert that these four are all there are. The stuff of life—the elemental events surrounding birth, death, raising children, fulfilling one’s personal potential, dealing with adversity, intimate relationships—coping with life as it exists around us in all its richness—occurs within those four institutions.

Seen in this light, the goal of social policy is to ensure that those institutions are robust and vital. And that’s what’s wrong with the European model. It doesn’t do that. It enfeebles every single one of them.

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