August 1, 2008

Liberaltarians and the Science of Happiness

By: Lauren Winchester

Inked onto a certain piece of parchment is the declaration that we are endowed with a triad of unalienable rights: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. What exactly life and liberty constitute have long been topics of debate. Now, it seems, happiness has joined them in contention.

For the past three years Will Wilkinson, a research fellow at the Cato Institute and author of The Fly Bottle blog, has studied the growing body of research in the field of what has come to be called “happiness economics.”

Wilkinson became interested in the field after attending a talk by the British economist Richard Layard, author of Happiness: Lessons From a New Science. In the book, Layard attempted to show empirical evidence that a bigger welfare state is necessary for a happier populace. Wilkinson, a staunch libertarian and a proponent of small government, was naturally disturbed by the results, and so decided to embark on his own happiness research. He analyzed the scholarship of Layard and his colleagues in this relatively new field and by April 2007 had written a paper titled “In Pursuit of Happiness Research: Is it Reliable? What Does It Imply for Policy?”.

Wilkinson’s thesis levels a broadside against the entire field of happiness research by raising certain key methodological and conceptual problems in measuring happiness. For example: Do some people merely claim to be happy when in fact they are not? How do you measure happiness in different cultures? And most importantly, how should happiness be defined?

But beyond these concerns, Wilkinson concludes that the happiness data gathered thus far point to limited government and economic freedom as the most likely routes to happiness for a given society.

“That formulation—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—indicated a common assumption about the relationship between those things,” Wilkinson says. “In order to achieve happiness, obviously you need to be secure in your physical life. Dead people aren’t happy. But the main means to happiness is liberty.”

And although happiness is important, it’s not everything. “Some of the economists who do happiness research fall into the trap of thinking that happiness is the sole value according to which we’re going to measure the success or failure of any initiative,” says Wilkinson. There are other values like beauty, truth, and knowledge that sometimes override happiness—as, say, Michelangelo discovered while painting the Sistine Chapel; or as Wilkinson, a die-hard policy wonk, discovered when he decided to move from Washington, DC, to Iowa to be with his girlfriend.

Wilkinson and his girlfriend will soon be relocating to Iowa City, deep in America’s “flyover country,” for at least a couple of years while she studies at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. The transition will undoubtedly affect their happiness. “Friendship and sociality are as important as anything else for happiness,” Wilkinson says. “So unless we can find a group of people we enjoy as much in Iowa City as we have here, we might be a little less happy.”

In Iowa, Wilkinson will continue his work at Cato as the managing editor of the think tank’s online magazine, Cato Unbound. He’ll also keep up with his blog, where—in addition to writing about happiness research—he sometimes advocates policies in line with the liberaltarian line of thought. Liberaltarianism is a termCato’s Brink Lindsey debuted in 2006 in The New Republic in orderto make the case for a new brand of libertarian thought. The term can be tricky to define, but in short, it’s a left-leaning libertarian with welfare or statist tendencies, sometimes known as a “market liberal.”

“The difference between say a liberaltarian or a market liberal and a traditional egalitarian liberal is a sense of what kinds of institutions are going to deliver the goods for the least well off in society,” Wilkinson says. “The question is always ‘how do you design those programs in a way that doesn’t discourage work and doesn’t encourage dependency?’”

The liberaltarian agenda folds back quite conveniently into happiness research. “Societies that have relatively free markets, high levels of personal liberty and high rates of economic growth are the places where people are in fact the happiest,” he says.

With the empirical research on happiness to back it up, a compromise between liberals and libertarians becomes feasible, because there is at least as much common ground between them on social issues as there is between libertarians and conservatives on economic and other issues. What’s more, the glue holding together the conservative-libertarian coalition—the fight against socialism and communism—is weakening. Now, it’s all about questions of values.

“I don’t care about the same thing that conservatives care about,” Wilkinson says frankly. On issues like abortion, marriage, immigration, and so forth, socially liberal values, coupled with a free market ideology that advocates a limited welfare state, puts liberaltarians like him in the same school of thought as canonical libertarians like Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman. (Hayek was in favor of a minimum income, and Friedman came up with the idea of the negative income tax—essentially a minimum income policy).

“A certain kind of commitment to an economically literate conception of a well designed welfare state is a part of the 20th century libertarian tradition,” he says.

Some libertarians with a more “anarchistic bent” might say Wilkinson doesn’t belong to the true fold since he promotes the role of an active state.  But “if Hayek is a libertarian, you can be a libertarian too,” he says. “It doesn’t mean you have to want to smash the state tomorrow.”

He thinks that a lot more people would be sympathetic to liberaltarianism if they had understood that there was more than just one kind of libertarian.  “I think it’s important to communicate broadly that the kind of libertarianism that Ron Paul endorses isn’t the only kind,” he says. “And in fact it’s not the kind that most of the intellectual giants of the libertarian movement believed in.”

-Lauren Winchester is a reporter for Doublethink Online.