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Westlake Legal Group > Aristotle

Chloe Westley: Pursuing happiness doesn’t guarantee finding it

Chloe Westley is the Campaign Manager of the TaxPayers’ Alliance.

How would you measure happiness? Epicurus would say you can measure happiness by the absence of pain. Aristotle would argue that happiness was more to do with flourishing as a human being should, by pursuing virtues and obtaining a good character. Other philosophers, such as Kant, argue that happiness is not necessarily something worth chasing at all, as we’re not really capable of knowing what will or won’t make us happy. For me, happiness is time spent with children, dogs, and people that I love. Maybe that’s your definition of happiness too.

But it’s difficult to find a full proof definition of what happiness consists of, or how we should measure it. I’ve been pondering this question since I heard that New Zealand will now be adopting a ‘well-being’ budget that will measure progress based on the happiness of citizens as opposed to Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Jacinda Ardern has pledged to make New Zealand a country where ‘“success is measured not only by the nation’s GDP but by better lives lived by its people.”

Well, yes, obviously. Nobody disagrees that the whole point of policy making – and indeed of politics – is to try and make people happy. (We’d be in serious trouble if monetary policy was driven by a desire to make things worse for people.) The prosperity of a population is always the consideration for policy makers. Labelling this a ‘well-being budget’ strikes me as simply a marketing gimmick to distract from the fact that, in New Zealand, Labour have failed on all of their major policy planks, and have ironically abandoned the previous Government’s social investment scheme, which was aimed at improving well being.

But the progressive world rejoiced, and hailed this as a step in the right direction. Many on the Left view economic growth as an overrated metric which distracts from the real problems that people face. The Prime Minister’s statement implies that there isn’t a connection between well being and economic prosperity, and that by focusing on economic growth instead of well being, people in New Zealand were suffering.

But far from making people miserable, economic growth is what lifts a country out of poverty and improves living standards. And whilst we do find it nearly impossible to find a universal definition of happiness, having your basic needs met as a human being is surely a prerequisite. I struggle to conceive of being as happy or fulfilled living in the Soviet Union and seeing family starve due to food shortages, or having to queue for hours to receive basic necessities in socialist Venezuela.

Whilst it’s true that ‘money can’t buy happiness’, it’s also the case that capitalism has radically improved our living standards and well being. In authoritarian countries in which the state has a monopoly on industry, progress comes to a halt. But when individuals are able to compete with each other for business, products and services are radically improved, as the greatest minds collaborate to invent even better ways of doing things.

Advancements driven by capitalism in healthcare and medicine have resulted in huge increases to life expectancy around the world. In the last 80 years, life expectancy has doubled in the United Kingdom, and child mortality rates are falling globally (sadly, Venezuela is an exception to this trend).

In less economically developed countries, child labour is more common, but in countries such as the UK, which have embraced capitalism, children are spending more time in education. If you’re looking for more evidence of how free markets and capitalism have improved our way of life, this article by my colleague Ben Ramanauskas goes into great detail.

Of course living longer is not necessarily an indicator of happiness. But if, like me, the thing that makes you happiest in this world is spending time with the people (and dogs!) you love, then living in a country with an advanced economy with longer life expectancy and better healthcare is of paramount importance, as well as the amount of leisure time you have available.

Technology has been both a blessing and a curse in that respect. Whilst automation has enabled us to spend less time on manual tasks, smart phones and email correspondence means that many of us are working more in our free time. I’d be interested to read a more detailed report on working habits as a result of recent technology. But looking at the general trends over the last 100 years, its estimated that the hours worked over the course of a lifetime in Britain have declined by an average of 41 per cent since 1856. Whilst this may differ across various professions, this means the average Brit has more time to spend with friends, family, and exploring non-work related interests.

It’s important to note that economic growth alone cannot provide the conditions for a flourishing society and happy population. For example, the rule of law, religious freedom, freedom of speech, and a respect for the rights of the individual have all contributed to the huge improvements to living standards in the Western world. But the reason we are living in relative paradise compared to other countries and to previous generations is because capitalism and trade have super-charged human progress and technology.

Whilst the Government is not solely responsible for your happiness, there is a role for policy makers to allow for the conditions which will best enable you to pursue your own happiness. If those who govern declare that economic growth is no longer a priority, and adopt an anti-growth, anti-business and interventionist agenda in the name of ‘promoting well-being’, then they may find they achieve the exact opposite of what they set out to do.

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