Wednesday, March 02, 2005

The War Against Individuality is Declared

By British magazine Prospect's columinst Richard Ledyard, who here presents seriously a number of ways in which the government should legislate happiness. Thankfully I was prepared for what was to come by Don Boudreaux's commentary over at Cafe Hayek, and thus slowly immersed myself into Ledyard's statist utopia rather than suddenly erupting in a fury, smashing my monitor and bashing my CPU into pieces Office Space style.

Some gems from Ledyard's piece:

I want a society in which people are as happy as possible and in which each person's happiness counts equally. That should be the philosophy for our age, the guide for public policy and for individual action. And it should come to replace the intense individualism which has failed to make us happier.

So we, as individuals, should have no right to pursue happiness as we see fit, for it may infringe upon "each person's happiness counting equally". Our "guide for individual action" should count each persons happiness equally, and thus if there are four people at work who's desire is that I impale myself on a fencepost (and I assure you, there are at least that many), then I should do so, as in weighing each person's happiness equally, I am greatly outnumbered.

Better still, this should be our guide for public policy. It shall be the government's job to legislate that each of us live our lives in a way that will make the most others happy. And these omniscient, all-powerful individuals will use the powers of force and taxation to ensure that we do.

In any society, richer people are happier than poor people. Yet as a western country becomes richer, its people overall do not become happier. The reason for this is that over time our standards and expectations rise to meet our income.

So the solution, clearly, is to have lower standards and expectations. If only we were all happy eating sparrows which happened to fall from the tree in our straw huts while crapping in chamber pots fashioned from half a coconut - THAT would be truly heaven. And before you give me that "I'm not suggesting we go back to that" line, remember that we WERE there as a species once upon a time, and if people like yourself were making our decisions for us, that's precisely where we would be today. If the likes of you had presented this theory of government in 1776, you'd have written this article by tallow candle light with a quill pen for an audience of yourself and ten of your neighbors - IF you could find the time between trips out back to chop more wood for the fire.

People work, in part at least, to improve their status. But status is a system of ranking: one, two, three and so on. So if one person improves his status, someone else loses an equal amount.


income taxes discourage work. Most economists consider this a disadvantage. They say that when someone pays £100 in taxes, it hurts more than that—it has an "excess burden"—because of the distortion away from work. But without taxes there would be an inefficient distortion towards work. So taxes up to a certain level can help to improve the work-life balance of citizens and thus increase the overall sense of wellbeing in a society.


So if the human status race is dysfunctional—from the point of view of the overall happiness in society—it makes sense to reduce freedom a small amount through taxation policy.


if we work harder and raise our standard of living, we first appreciate it but then we get used to it. Research shows that people do not adequately foresee this process of habituation, or fully realise that once they have experienced a superior lifestyle they will feel they have to continue it. They will in effect become addicted to it. Once again, the standard economic approach to addictive spending is to tax it.

Oh.... my... god.... This guy is actually using the "We all starve equally" argument to SUPPORT confiscatory tax policy??? (It's at this point that if Boudreaux had not sufficiently prepared me, my monitor would have been busted, and I would likely be on my way to the hospital to have my broken hand looked at.)

But you think that's it? Don't be silly. There's more... much more... this guy's rich.

We should be sceptical of institutions which give greater weight to rank, such as performance-related pay (PRP). The idea of PRP is that by paying people for what they achieve, we provide the best possible system of incentives.

"From each according to his ability..."

Divorce and broken homes are ever more common. Research shows that the children of broken homes are more prone to depression in adulthood. To protect children, the state should act to try to make family life more manageable, through better school hours, flexible hours at work, means-tested childcare, and maternity and paternity leave. Parenting classes should also be compulsory in the school curriculum and an automatic part of antenatal care.

Yeah, cumpulsory parenting classes are the secret to happiness.

And, now angered to a state of frothing madness, I jump ahead to the conclusion of Ledyard's article:

So my hope is that in this new century we can finally adopt the greatest happiness of humankind as our concept of the common good. This would have two results. It would serve as a clear guide to policy. But, even more important, it would inspire us in our daily lives to take more pleasure in the happiness of others, and to promote it. In this way we might all become less self-absorbed and more happy.

And thus is declared the war against individualism. Make no mistake, these are not the rantings of a lonely madman, they are the credo of a great number of statists throughout the globe, who would legislate our commonality and conformity to eliminate differences and aspirations that lead to unhappiness. Enter Bodreaux's incisive analysis:

People like Layard, I dare say, have in their heads some image of government much like that of an all-powerful, all-benevolent deity. See a problem, turn government loose on it. Sure there are countless administrative details that must be chosen, implemented, and monitored when government tackles a problem, but we can trust the good motives, the democratic spirit, and administrative-law judges to somehow, sort of, well-enough typically kinda ensure that these dull but all-important details are dealt with wisely. And government being mostly good, we need not fear that it will abuse its power.

And of course, he's completely correct. These people DO hold government as their religion. They worship unquestionably at its altar, attack those who question their beliefs, and require no proof of its efficacy to sustain that belief. And, of course, as with all religions man has practiced through the ages, a large number of the adherents of statism have done unspeakable harm in it's name.


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