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Live By The Survey, Die By The Survey

“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should conduct a happiness survey to make sure that at least 51 percent of people will be made ‘very happy’ by the decision.”

Thankfully Jefferson spared us that. American Enterprise Institute president Arthur Brooks, unfortunately, does not.

In a piece for yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, Brooks argues that the entitlement state should be “reformed” because the unearned money it doles out to recipients will not actually make them happy. Brooks is certainly right that we need to limit the entitlement state, and that unearned money doesn’t make people happy. But how he argues for those propositions is a disaster: it actually undermines the case for limited government.

Brooks rests his argument on a handful of “happiness studies”—surveys in which respondents describe themselves and their level of satisfaction with life. According to Brooks:

There is a huge amount of research showing that money, when earned, has a generally positive association with happiness. The problem is when it is unearned, when raw purchasing power is untethered from hard work and merit. Above basic subsistence, happiness comes not from money per se, but from the value creation it is rewarding.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that happiness studies are entirely worthless, but they are at best raw material for philosophers and psychologists to analyze. Among many other reasons to discount their value:

  • Defining “happiness” is a controversial philosophic issue.
  • Most people are lousy introspectors.
  • Even when they can accurately assess their own level of happiness, there is little reason to think most people will honestly report it to researchers.
  • At best, the surveys can help identify correlations, not causation.
  • The findings of the surveys are often inconsistent.

To treat happiness studies as definitive is ridiculous. We can’t shove aside Aristotle just because we have Gallup.

By arguing against the entitlement state on such a flimsy foundation, Brooks opens the door for any opponent yielding a happiness study that supports greater government intervention. To wit:

People Who Pay Higher Taxes Are Happier: Study

They say money can’t buy you happiness, but what about forking over some of it to the government?

Higher taxes are correlated with higher life satisfaction, according to a November study by six economists affiliated with the Institute for the Study of Labor in Bonn, Germany.

Live by the survey, die by the survey. But as bad as it is to base his argument against entitlements on polling, what’s worse is the primacy Brooks gives to the happiness of the entitlement state’s intended recipients. He never challenges the notion that wealth redistribution would be a proper policy if happiness surveys suggested that unearned wealth did in fact make the recipients happier. He never mentions the rights of a creator to the wealth he creates.

Yet that is the only solid, moral, or defensible foundation of a free society—as the Founding Fathers understood. If you earned your paycheck, you have a right to it, regardless of how many people come knocking on the door claiming your money would make them happier than it would make you.

There has long been a tendency among those in the humanities to think that being scientific requires them to mimic the hard sciences. If a philosopher argues that stealing won’t make you happy or that we should set up society on a foundation of individual rights, well, that’s just his opinion. But if we can add a few footnotes and numbers? Now we’re on solid ground. Brooks’s piece helps illustrate the folly in that notion.