The happiness platform

by D.C. Innes

Posted on Monday, April 20, 2015, at 3:23 pm

With the presidential nominating season now under way, ideas and promises for improving our lives are filling our ears, but they tend to focus on economic issues. For example, Marco Rubio highlights tax reform, a seemingly narrow concern, while Hillary Clinton offers herself as champion of the middle class, fighting for economic opportunity against the plutocratic class that is funding her and of which she is a part.

But if you ask voters what is most important to them, their answer is always the same. Author and scholar Charles Murray has identified four areas where people find deep satisfaction: family, community, vocation, and faith. People can endure a lot of hardship in life if they have a loving, stable, and supportive family. Beyond that, people’s well-being depends in large part on a community that is safe and culturally stable where they have rich associations outside the family: friends, church, civic organizations, sports leagues. Good schools support family and community. Family, neighbors, and community associations are also major sources of the assurance that one is loved and respected. Beyond these things, meaningful work gives a satisfying sense of a life well-lived, that one’s work matters, makes a better world. And a religious life ties all these things together with eternal purpose, shared loves, and divine assurances.

One might well object that it is not the government’s business to provide us with happiness. But the way we are governed should at least make it easier for us to pursue that happiness, whether by what the government does or refrains from doing.

Public policy can either support or burden families. In some cases it can even destroy them. Tax policy is family friendly or not. Government can slow or help grow the economy, either of which has consequences for the availability and quality of employment. Financial strain weakens marriages. A robust economy makes it easier for people to match their talents with suitable work, for fathers to support a family and mothers to raise children, and for people to grow up and grow old in the same community.

So a government’s focus on economics is not as narrow as it seems at first. But this can be done well or poorly. Economic policies can have clumsy and accidental consequences for people’s happiness or intentionally assist it. Government that sees itself as being there simply to keep the peace—people’s happiness being entirely their own business—is naïve. On the other hand, government that tries to provide happiness wherever it sees a tear is like a kindly but simpleminded giant that causes catastrophe by going too far in his attempts to help. But government by its very nature is suited to help people help themselves—whether individually, or as families, communities, associations, churches, and businesses.

The good candidate for office understands what happiness is—even in these simplest and most uncontroversial terms—and government’s limited but valuable role in it. He or she will offer policies narrowly tailored to help us pursue that happiness and, beyond that, get out of the way.

D.C. Innes

D.C. is associate professor of politics at The King's College in New York City and co-author of Left, Right, and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics (Russell Media). Follow D.C. on Twitter @DCInnes1.

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