Saturday, March 08, 2008


There is a new battleground between left and right liberals, namely, happiness. Their debate about what makes us happy reveals a great deal about the mindset of both the left and the right, so it’s well worth looking at.
I will take as a representative of the left, the Australian “think-tanker” Clive Hamilton, and on the right, another think-tanker, the Swede Johan Norberg.
The left: Clive Hamilton

Last year, Clive Hamilton published a discussion paper called The Disappointment of Liberalism. He began this paper by noting that liberalism had succeeded in its basic aim.

What is the basic aim of liberalism? Let me put it this way, as simply as I can. Liberals believe that we are made human by being self-created through our own individual will and reason. This means that for liberals it is important that the individual is “liberated” from anything which impedes individual choice.

What kinds of things limit individual choice? Most notably, those things which are important to our self-identity, but which we inherit or are born to (and therefore don’t get to choose). This includes our sex (whether we are man or woman), and our race and ethnicity.

For a liberal, it is important that these unchosen things be made not to matter. Therefore, someone who defends them, for instance, by accepting different social roles for men and women will be called “sexist” by a liberal. Similarly, a white European who defends his own ethnic tradition will be labelled a “racist” – because such a view conflicts with liberal first principles.

Hamilton, though, doesn’t do much name calling as he is confident that the liberal project has succeeded. Note how clearly he expresses the basic principles of liberalism in the following passage:

Now that the constraints of socially imposed roles have weakened, oppression based on gender, class and race is no longer tenable, and the daily struggle for survival has for most people disappeared, we have entered an era characterised by ‘individualisation’ where, for the first time, individuals have the opportunity to ‘write their own biographies’ rather than have the chapters foretold by the circumstances of their birth. For the first time in history, the ordinary individual in the West has the opportunity to make a true choice ...

We’ve never had more freedom to shape ourselves in the way we want ...

This liberal concept of “freedom”, though, creates a particular difficulty. It leaves you with a society made up of millions of atomised individuals, each acting according to their own individual wants. How then do you hold a society together?

This is exactly the issue Hamilton wishes to discuss. He writes,

this essay is a prelude to answering the question of how we can reconstruct the social in an individualized world. In a world where we are no longer bound together by our class, gender or race, why should we live cooperatively?

In the nineteenth century, liberals thought they had found an answer to the dilemma. If individuals sought to follow a profit motive, no matter how selfishly, the hidden hand of the market would regulate the outcome for the overall benefit of society: for growth and progress.

However, by the end of the nineteenth century, a group of “new liberals” were decisively rejecting the free market solution, because it generated inequalities of outcome. They preferred the idea of a “rational” regulation of society, particularly by the central state.

Today, the nineteenth century “classical liberals” are the right-wing of politics, and the twentieth century “new liberals” are the left-wing.

You would therefore expect a left-liberal like Clive Hamilton to be critical of free market solutions. And he is. In fact, his basic argument runs as follows.

First, as we have seen, he celebrates the overthrow of a traditionalist “social” conservatism. He believes that today,

the shackles of minority oppression and social conservatism have been cast off. The traditional standards, expectations and stereotypes that were the target of the various movements, dating from the 1960s – the sexual revolution, the counter-culture and the women’s movement – ushered in an era of personal liberty.

And yet, continues Hamilton, people don’t seem to be any happier. He notes “the extraordinary proliferation of the diseases of affluence” which,

suggests that the psychological wellbeing of citizens of rich countries is in decline. These diseases include drug dependence, obesity, loneliness and a suite of psychological disorders ranging from depression, anxiety, compulsive behaviours and widespread but ill-defined anomie. Perhaps the most telling evidence is the extraordinary prevalence of depression in rich countries.

What can explain the failure of the liberal project to create happiness? Hamilton’s answer is to blame the influence of the free market. He believes that people aren’t using their new found freedom to make reasoned, considered choices, but are being manipulated by the market to follow more shallow, consumeristic impulses.

It is Hamilton’s belief that “The market itself has, in recent decades, evolved into an instrument of coercion” and that “The activities of the marketers, given unbounded licence by the free-market policies of neoliberals [he means right-liberals], reinforce daily the promise of instant gratification ... So forceful and pervasive are the messages of the marketers that they now provide the raw material from which people construct their identities.”

The right liberal: Johan Norberg

Johan Norberg has also written a paper about happiness: The Scientist’s Pursuit of Happiness.

We know from this paper that Norberg is a liberal because he expresses in it the underlying liberal principle that individuals should choose their own identity, and reject inherited ones. He writes that,

a liberal and market-oriented society allows people freedom to choose. In the absence of authoritarian leaders ... forcing us to live the way they think is best for us, we can choose the kind of identity and lifestyle that suits us ... In traditional societies, on the other hand, the individual has to adapt to pre-fabricated roles and demands.

We can also tell from Norberg’s paper that he is not only a liberal, but more specifically a right-liberal. Unlike Hamilton, he is a devotee of the free market, and tends to see man’s economic activity as central to his life.

For instance, he writes that, “If you want to meet a happy Australian, ask someone who thinks that people like themselves have a good chance of improving their standard of living.”

He believes also that happiness reached a peak after WWII, because “With economies growing rapidly, people began to think that their children would enjoy a better life than they had.”

He is even willing to place economic activity ahead of family life, by citing a survey in which people recorded more happiness while working than when spending free time with their families.

Note too his idea that “Belief in the future grows when poor countries begin to experience growth, when markets open up, when incomes increase and people’s decisions begin to affect their place in society.”

Norberg, in fact, is such a devotee of the free market, that he wants no controls at all on the movement of labour. He believes in unfettered immigration, stating that “If people were allowed to cross borders at will, they would take their ideas and their labour and skills with them. This is all part of free trade...” (The Age, 24/9/05)

Of course, left-liberals also support open borders. However, whereas left-liberals typically support multiculturalism, Norberg follows the more usual right-liberal policy of wanting high immigration plus assimilation. In his view,

It is time for our liberal societies to stop apologising, to get back our self-confidence and state that tolerance and freedom is our way, and those who are out to destroy that deserve no toleration. The idea that we shouldn’t impose our values (on immigrants) is bizarre. Of course we should.

We should force everybody to accept every other human being as a free and autonomous individual with the same rights as himself. That is the law of a liberal, open society, and that is what has created the most creative and humane societies in world history. Everybody who wants to enjoy that society must conform to it. (The Age, 24/9/05)

Note that Norberg in this quote writes as a kind of upbeat booster to his own liberal society. This is, again, typical of right-liberals. Left-liberals are more inclined to see themselves as “outsiders” (even when they are very influential) and to be negative and critical of their own societies.

The fact that left-liberals often see themselves as “dissenters” is illustrated by a recent university study which found that 20% of candidates for the left-wing Australian Labor Party declared themselves to be either not very proud, or not at all proud, to be Australian.

Finally, as you would expect of a right-liberal, Norberg is anti-statist. He believes that the free market is the solution, and so doesn’t like the idea of state interference. It is no coincidence, therefore, that he believes that the state can’t create happiness.

It is his view that “it does not seem like the growth of the welfare state has increased human happiness” and that “A government that says it wants to make us happy misses the obvious fact that a government can’t give us happiness.”

A conservative reply

How might a traditionalist conservative respond to Hamilton and Norberg? I have already written a reply to Hamilton, so I will focus here on Norberg.

One thing a traditionalist can do is to reply to Norberg within the current framework of debate. For instance, Norberg claims that,

the most happy and satisfied places on earth are the ones that are most dynamic, individualist and wealthy: North America, Northern Europe and Australia.

If so, this doesn’t say much about the human capacity for happiness. As Hamilton has already pointed out, there is an epidemic of mental ill-health in North America, Northern Europe and Australia. Hamilton notes that the incidence of depression in the US grew tenfold in the five decades after WWII, despite this being a golden age of economic growth. He also cites reports that nearly one in four French people are taking tranquillisers, anti-depressants, antipsychotics or other mood-altering drugs.

Even more remarkably, in Norway, which has reputedly become “the richest country of all time”, one in four adults seeks psychiatric treatment each year.

What is also significant is the survey result, quoted by Norberg himself, showing that 48% of Americans had “downshifted” in the last five years, by reducing their working hours, declining promotions, lowering their material expectations or moving to a quieter place.

So the idea that careerism and rising material standards of living are sufficient to produce human happiness doesn’t seem to fit the facts. The free market doesn’t provide everything we need to be happy.

However, it’s not enough for traditionalists to respond at this level. We leave too much of the liberal mentality intact if we do.

First, we need to engage at the level of underlying principles. Norberg wants us to be free to choose as long as we don’t choose traditional, “pre-fabricated” roles and identities. This might not seem too much of an imposition, but we need to remember that many traditional identities became accepted and generally applied (pre-fabricated) because they reflected significant aspects of human nature.

Women being maternal and caring for their own children is a traditional role and identity; but it is no light imposition to declare this role to be illegitimate for being “prefabricated”.

In other words, it is those things we are most likely to want to choose which Norberg’s liberalism will frown upon and want to “liberate” us from.

Second, traditionalists need to question an even more basic assumption underlying the whole debate. Is it really true that the aim of human life is the pursuit of individual happiness?

In liberal societies, this assumption is widespread. One of the inalienable rights of man listed in the US Declaration of Independence is “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. A radical right-liberal, Ayn Rand, was even bold enough to assert that her philosophy was “the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.”

This assumption, that our life’s purpose is the pursuit of our own happiness, seems false to me and even a little degrading.

It’s not that happiness doesn’t form part of a good life, but that we are made to reach beyond this to more significant things.

It’s difficult to give a complete picture of what these significant things are, but I’ll make a start. I think, for instance, it’s important for individuals to experience certain forms of “connectedness”. This might include a love of nature, an appreciation of art, romantic or marital love, a sense of ancestry, an ethnic or national identity, and our own masculine or feminine natures and the virtues associated with these.

The importance of such forms of connectedness is not just that they make us “happy”, but that they anchor us, provide a significant moral framework, add meaning to our life efforts, and most importantly provide the deeper forms of self-identity: our enduring sense of who we are.

Liberalism doesn’t want us to be connected in the way I am trying to describe; the liberal aim is for the individual to be free-floating and self-scripting, always independent and autonomous, with multiple, fluid, negotiated identities (to use liberal jargon).

It may well be possible to find a kind of surface happiness in the liberal way, through the pursuit of a purely individual happiness (shopping, careers and so on), but much of the traditional significance of life will be left out.

At any rate, we should not fall into the trap of accepting the liberal terms of debate. If we feel uncomfortable with the idea that our life’s goal is the individual pursuit of happiness, our challenge is to step outside this view and to advance a clear alternative.

(First published at Conservative Central, 27/09/2005)

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