Friday, June 23, 2017

From the Archives: Revisiting a libertarian classic - Charles Murray's 'In Pursuit of Happiness and Good Government'

Publisher's note: This article was originally published on on June 23, 2010. The publishing platform was discontinued July 1, 2016, and its web site went dark on or about July 10, 2016.  I am republishing this piece in an effort to preserve it and all my other contributions to since April 6, 2010. It is reposted here without most of the internal links that were in the original.

Revisiting a libertarian classic - Charles Murray's 'In Pursuit of Happiness and Good Government'
June 23, 2010 9:41 PM MST

Question: If money can’t buy happiness, what can?

Answer: Read Charles Murray’s 1988 book, In Pursuit: Of Happiness and Good Government. It may not provide the definitive answers to this question, but it certainly focuses the argument.

Preceding by a few years Murray’s What It Means to Be a Libertarian, this follow-up to his successful critique of Great Society social policy, Losing Ground, demonstrates that Murray is probably the most lucid and readable writer on questions of social policy since Jane Jacobs.

Accessible Writing
Charles Murray in pursuit of happiness and good governmentUnlike so many “scholarly” texts on this and related topics, Murray makes accessible to any interested reader the issue of the role government may have in enabling individuals to pursue happiness. And since the questions he addresses are those that have badgered us since the beginning of speech -- What is the ultimate meaning of life? What is virtuous behavior? Where do we go from here? -- it seems few readers could be uninterested.

Murray points out that simply giving money (or food stamps, or housing vouchers) to poor people will not break the cycle of poverty. Nor can it make people happy. Money is just one of a number of “enabling conditions” that allow people to put-sue happiness in their own fashions. The proper role of government, Murray argues, is to build the base for these conditions and then stand out of the way.

Murray draws on the work of psychologist Abraham Maslow for his categories of “enabling conditions for the pursuit of happiness, which is to say, if all of them were met, it is difficult to see how a person could claim that he was prevented by external conditions from pursuing happiness.” These conditions are: material resources or physiological needs (food, water, shelter, sex), safety (predictability, order, protection from physical harm), intimacy (friendship, relations with spouse or children). self-respect or self esteem, and self-actualization or, in Murray’s terms, “enjoyment.”

Government as Obstacle
In Murray’s argument, government is more likely to stand in the way after these enabling conditions are laid down, impeding the pursuit of happiness rather than facilitating it. The basic difficulty is that we deal with social problems in a fashion that either leads to no solution or to making the problem worse.

Charles Murray Statue of Liberty Rick Sincere Paris River Seine
Murray cites sociologist Peter Rossi, who has formulated the Iron Law of Evaluation and the Stainless Steel Law, which say, respectively, “The expected value of any net impact assessment of any large scale social program is zero,” and “The better designed the impact assessment of a social program, the more likely is the resulting estimate of net impact to be zero.” In other words, social planners are like dogs chasing their tails. They run and run and bark and bark, but they don’t get anywhere and they don’t catch anything.

Drawing examples from the real world -- the 55-mph speed limit and the task of attracting good teachers to public schools, for instance -- Murray demonstrates that conventional ways of thinking are wholly inadequate for the issues we confront. New questions must be asked, he says, questions that do not necessarily have quantifiable answers.

Individuals Alone
Much of what comprises “happiness” and the “pursuit of happiness” cannot be expressed in terms of dollars, gallons, or percentiles. The metaphor for their work used by social planners should be changed from engineering to healing. As a result, Murray says, “the world would not be perfect; it would just be better.”

The essence of Murray’s message is that individuals alone can best determine their own destinies and can best decide how they shall pursue happiness.

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