Guest Opinion: Can government make you happy?

Published 1:51 pm Friday, May 31, 2024

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By John Hood

RALEIGH — Is it the job of government to make you happy? While it may seem like a straightforward question, there are some important subtleties packed into those few words.

On the face of it, “no” feels like the obvious answer. The Declaration of Independence states that governments are instituted to secure our rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The first section of our state constitution uses the same language, while adding that North Carolinians are entitled to protection of their right “to enjoyment of the fruits of their own labor.”

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Under our form of government, you’re not entitled to be happy. Nor are you entitled to enjoy the benefits of someone else’s labor. You are free to yearn, to strive, to pursue. You may reach your goals, and feel happy about that. Or you may not fully reach your goals, yet derive satisfaction from the attempt and from what you gain along the way.

Governments are obligated, then, only to protect your right to pursue happiness. Simply being unhappy is not a justification for governments using coercion to transfer the fruits of other people’s labors to you.

On the other hand, the tasks governments are constitutionally authorized to do for us — ensure public safety, administer courts, and finance public goods that cannot otherwise be delivered by voluntary means — are obviously related to our happiness. We pay taxes, comply with the law, and otherwise give up some of our personal liberty in order to receive valuable public services. If we don’t get them, or their value is far less than the cost, that understandably makes us unhappy. As government failures increase, that unhappiness turns to anger.

Whether in Washington or in Raleigh, policymakers typically judge public policies according to objective criteria such as the pace of economic growth, changes in personal incomes, levels of educational attainment, or health outcomes. Increasingly, however, some analysts are using measures of public happiness or satisfaction to evaluate what government does (or fails to do).

The technical name for what they are measuring is “subjective wellbeing.” People differ in their preferences, circumstances, and definitions of a life well lived. The best way to gauge how happy or satisfied they feel is to ask them, not to make guesses based on facts external to their personal experience.

When it comes to the optimal size and scope of government, progressives and conservatives clearly disagree. In the North Carolina context, for example, progressives think our state expenditures and taxes are too low to finance necessary public services. Conservatives think North Carolina is closer to getting it right, and that making state government bigger than it is now would cost more than the additional services would be worth.

I’m a conservative, and I often cite studies about economic growth to support my case. But is that really the goal? One might argue that instead of measuring North Carolina’s gross domestic product, we ought to be measuring North Carolina’s gross domestic happiness!

A few researchers have done that kind of analysis. For example, a study by Baylor University political scientist Patrick Flavin, published in the journal Social Science Research, compared levels of state spending to levels of subjective wellbeing. He found no relationship between overall state spending and residents’ self-reported happiness. He found the same thing for major categories of state spending such as education and public assistance.

However, Flavin did find the states that spent more on true “public goods” — including highways, public safety, libraries, and parks — tended to have higher levels of subjective wellbeing. With true public goods, it is either impossible or prohibitively costly to exclude nonpayers from benefitting from them, and consumption by one person doesn’t significantly reduce the ability of another to consume it.

Taken together with other studies showing a link between economic freedom and subjective wellbeing, I read this evidence as generally consistent with a fiscally conservative approach to public policy. Perhaps you disagree. I’m happy to talk more about it.

John Hood is a John Locke Foundation board member.