We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

The happiness argument for capitalism and the misery argument against the state

There was a semi-interesting semi-comical article yesterday in the Guardian on the subject of happiness.

Propose a movement whose aim is to bottle happiness so it can be dispensed to one and all, saving humanity from a future of chronic misery, and you might expect at least a few people to roll their eyes. But, starting tomorrow, Britain’s most prestigious scientific institution, the Royal Society, will host a meeting for some of the world’s top psychologists who have done just that. Over two days, they will discuss “the science of wellbeing”. Their aim is to find out why it is that some people’s lives go so right. What is it that makes them happy and fulfilled, while others seem doomed to founder in misery, dissatisfaction and dejection?

Psychologists have immersed themselves in the study of misery, but have studied happiness a lot less. That was the message of a speech by Martin Seligman to the American Psychological Association in 1998, which set this happiness research bandwagon rolling. Simply: What makes people happy? Quick: find some happy people. Study them. How do they do it?

Optimism is one of the answers, and optimism, says Nick Baylis of Cambridge University, one of the organisers of this Royal Society meeting, can be learned. You can focus deliberately on the positive. Bad stuff? Put it out of your mind. Make a list of all your reasons to be cheerful!

So, the academic psychologists are finally admitting that all those tacky American pop psychology books about how to get ahead selling life insurance, with their positive mental attitudes and winning friends by influencing people (by, e.g. smiling, and listening to them and being cheerful), have been right for about the last hundred years and the academic psychologists wrong. The way to avoid misery is not to wallow in it, but to put it behind you. Surprise surprise.

Okay, but why do I write about this here? What has this to do with the Samizdata meta-context? My title will have already told you. The great thing about capitalism is that it embraces success and forgets failure. It feeds solutions and starves problems. Does your new gizmo which was going to solve all the world’s problems look like making a billion bucks? Great. Pile in with money and people and lab space, and make it work. Set up a website. Take happy photos of it. Tell the world. Work stupidly long hours and have the time of your life making it go. (You need only look at all this space business stuff that Dale Amon goes on about here for a perfect example of this attitude in action.)

Or does it actually not work? Okay forget it. Dump it. Lose it. No more money. No more wasted resources or chasing after historic costs. It was an answer to a huge problem was it? It needs (look out for that word) more money rather than less. Tough. It may need it but it can’t have it. Learn what can be learned from the screw-up and move on. Put the money and the people who would be wasted on the thing to workon other stuff with a better chance.

Government, on the other hand … Well, you know what I’m going to say now. Simply read the collected bloggings of David Carr for how that works, and what it does to your happiness if that’s all you spend your time looking at (although to be fair David does seem to have cheered himself up a bit lately by deliberately looking for good news as well as bad). Government feeds problems and starves solutions. It obsesses about people’s miseries and failures and inadequacies, individual and collective, and throws infinite money at them. It purchases unhappiness, you might say, by taxing happiness. It redistributes the world’s resources from happy stuff to miserable stuff.

This is why anti-capitalists tend to be so miserable, and why people like academic psychologists have tended to be anti-capitalists also. While they wallowed in neurosis and grief and failure, the world of capitalism was not just passing them by, it was actually serving up better answers to their precious problems than they were. While psychologists encouraged the unhappy to focus on their unhappiness, capitalism said: forget that, here’s a job doing something that might work. That’ll cheer you up.

And this is why, despite the atmosphere of wheel-rediscovery that this Royal Society meeting exudes, we should resist the temptation to sneer, and instead welcome the academic psychologists back into the sunlight, back to the part of the world where problems are either solved or put aside until the day comes when they can be solved, where the positive is celebrated and the negative is the only thing that people treat negatively.

14 comments to The happiness argument for capitalism and the misery argument against the state

  • Alfred E. Neuman

    Psychology is a business. Its (primary) business is treating unhappiness. Make people happy, and they go out of business. This is why they have unhappy people focus on their unhappiness–it brings them back to the couch next week.

    That anyone would ever trust a psychologist for one second astounds me. Not only is it basically a shamanistic ritual with chemicals, they have ZERO vested interest in “curing” you, since they would be out of a job (or at least an income-generating patient). In fact, their ideal goal is to make you dependent on them; you become a permanent cash cow who will go nowhere else.

    In regular medicine, if a doctor fails to cure you he is subject to severe examination and can be sued for malpractice if he were to keep you sick so that you keep returning to his office for more care. But, amazingly, if a psychologist fails to “cure” you, it is expected that you keep returning to him again and again; there is no severe examination; and you sure as hell can’t sue him.

    Psychology is also a racket that exploits unhappy people. But then again, if they’re that stupid, then fuck them. There have always been con artists out there; it’s just that they didn’t used to be given the respect and prestige of real doctors. Very slick move by the psychologist con men, that one.

  • toolkien

    To me the larger question is why do people think they can simplify what drives happiness or unhappiness. Isn’t that the foundation of collectivism/religions? Assuming a central core of thinkers can reduce the billions of experiences spread across billions of people into a few tidy paradigms? Isn’t it obvious that the same set of circumstances plunge one individual into misery while motivating another to alter the situation? It is this quixotic attempt at reducing the trillions or quadrillions of life experiences, finitely distributed over billions of individuals, into truisms that causes the misery in the first place. The Central Planners (bureaucrats, priests, etc) are so taken with their reductions that forcing strict rules of behavior on the masses is deemed correct. Of course this is the root of unmitigable misery in most cases. At least when a person is free and has a sense of liberty, when misfortune befalls them, they realize that they are the center of addressing the problem and are aware of the measure of their capabilities to do something about it or settle if they can’t. When grand structures of State are created, the Planners have the power and the individual, confronted with misfortune, has no options to deal with the situation themselves, leaving them in misery with no recourse. So the very action of trying to distill happiness, presumably toward some State sanctioned distribution system, will create an environment for the least happiness for largest portion of the masses.

  • ernest young


    Have you never heard of paragraphs?, your comments are tiresomely difficult to read.

    I’m sure you have something worthwhile to say, but I have never managed to finish reading your stuff. 🙂

  • Kelli

    This is a bizarre argument all around. Happiness is not produced by one or another government system. Comfort, stability, even wealth, yes; happiness no. The US constitution enshrines the right to PURSUE happiness, but as the saying goes, nothing in this world is guaranteed.

    Only if happiness is a chemical reaction that can be induced by drugs and/or surgical intervention will there be a direct connection between that elusive emotion and any state system (in which case, the state that promotes the technology and effectively distributes it–mutually exclusive processes in today’s world–would win the sweepstakes).

    Longevity and health do not guarantee happiness and well-being–the bar just keeps going up. Maybe there’s only so much of it to go around and the pursuit, while worthwhile, is itself chimerical.

    I will say this much, Brian, for your argument. Only a fool (or a Guardian journalist) would add happiness to the long list of government entitlements.

  • Jacob

    “In regular medicine, if a doctor fails to cure you he is subject to severe examination….”

    In regular medicine, if a doctor fails to cure he loses a patient. If he succedes, he got a happy customer who will return again for treatement of other ailments in the future.

    In serious, I don’t think psychologists intentionally endeavour to keep they patients unhappy. It’s mostly that they are clueless, and guided by worthless theories that form this field of knowledge.
    They sometimes help their patients and sometimes don’t. The outcome is entirely randomal, with a tendency to the negative, due to those theories.

  • Alfred E. Neuman

    It’s mostly that they are clueless, and guided by worthless theories that form this field of knowledge.

    That’s just it, Jacob. These people are glorified professional listeners who are, astoundingly, given similar levels of respect, prestige, and leeway to actual medical doctors. Yet they are, as you say, clueless…or worse. As I said, it’s a con and a very successful one at that.

  • Ghaleon

    Don’t bash too much on psychologists, they’re theories aren’t all worthless, far from it… They can be very usefull at understanding some problems but when it come to cure them, you got to do it youself… Still, when it come to help with very serious problems, with children for exemple, they can be very usefull

    All psychologists aren’t as bad… personally I think that anyone should NEVER trust a psychanalists, those are the worse…. it is those who want you to remember sad things all the time and who’s treatment usually last years… you really represent big money for them.

    Be prudent with psychiatre too, they are very fast with theyre little book at saying you are mentally ill (sincerely, for them, everyone is, just try to get your hand on that book you’ll see what kind of stupidity are considered as mental illness…Theyre so much mental illness in it that you can be sure they will find one that fit you…) (Btw, I never add any experience with one, I’m not speaking about personnal experience here =) ) Anyway, after that they will simply give you some drugs, like if that was a solution to any problem…

  • John Harrison

    My doctor mentioned in passing the other day that the number of people reporting in with depression increases suddenly as soon as British Summer Time ends and the clocks are put back to GMT. If there is one thing the Government can do to make people happier it would be to put the UK on permanent daylight saving.
    Ghaleon:Anyway, after that they will simply give you some drugs, like if that was a solution to any problem…
    It sure is a fix for many mental disorders where the cause is a chemical imbalance in the brain. Psychiatry and most counsellors seem to concentrate on discovering the things which are making people miserable. About the only proven therapy is cognitive therapy, which strangely enough is closest to Brian’s approach to promoting happiness. The aim is for the patient to learn new positive thought patterns and abandon the prison of their negative self-perception. Sometimes the patient needs some help to work through such problems because they can’t see a way out for themselves – or have talked themselves into believing they can’t.

  • Biff Sprangel

    As a hard-core biochemist (none of that namby-pamby pop-psychology for me), I can heartily recommend Martin Seligman’s work as REAL SCIENCE, not the usual psycho-babble. His “learned happiness” theme is derived from years of experiments studying the opposite phenomenon, “learned helplessness”. His original monograph on learned helplessness is truly chilling, and is written from an experimentalist’s perspective. Although he doesn’t consider collectivist societies directly, his work definitely suggests reasons for the social dynamics of totalitarian systems. His learned happiness book looks at the positive potential of behavior modification, and is written more for the lay reader.

  • Hm. Wow!

    I was just thinking along this line. Check my site in a day or so. I’m still digesting your article “Shadows & Blog” which turned me onto Cluetrain. My first stab at it is The First-Amendment Miltia – A Blogger’s statement of intention.

    And there’s more to come from that. And now this.

    I’m quite used by now to highly educated professionals heralding blinding glimpses of the obvious. 🙂 I’ve never been entirely sure if that makes me smarter than the average bear, or that our society is designed to obscure the obvious.

    Cynicisim or arrogance, take your pick…

    However, I should mention that this folds rather well into puratanistic/calvanistic/catholic theology, all of which were deeply influenced by the anti-materialistic biases of the Zoastrians. In sum, all things physical are bad, anything physical or temporal that makes you happy is an occasion of sin, therefore, to be happy is to be sinful is to be evil is to be subject to unwelcome attention.

    You know, like any number of women in the 16th century…

    Indeed, conspicously happy single women were clapped into the Magdeline Laundries in Ireland. Surely they must have been Up to No Good…

    Anyway, large chunks of our culture – especially here in ahmurika – are deeply dedicated to the premise that misery must be equally distributed. The Anti-Fun-League is deeply entrenched – pick any Christian Conservative publication and see what they think of “innocent fun.

    Of course, you could pick on nearly any religion and find the same thing. I’m just picking on the ones trying to spoil my day.

  • John J. Coupal

    Kelli’s comments appear to be on target.

    The US founders voiced the individual Right to the pursuit of happiness. You and I may become happy through very different means. Government doesn’t define happiness, because it can’t (i.e., it is not capable of doing so).

    What the government can do (and sometimes does) is guarantee the right of the individual’s pursuit.

    The tools people use in that pursuit include drugs, sex, education, guns, marriage, bombs, jobs, etc. Society looks more kindly on certain of those tools.

  • Jason

    It’s some time since I studied this stuff, so apologies if I’m off beam here, but wasn’t Bentham and JS MIll’s endorsement of capitalism founded wholly on the premise of utilitarianism?

  • Capitalism is voluntary collectivism for shared risk to profit from shared goals via pooled resources; to achieve ends in the market place that can’t be met by individuals acting alone.

    The voluntary pooling of capital, hence the name.

    Corporate, syndicalist, and other versions of it have arisen. It’s single most salient distinguishing feature imho is the voluntary nature of the collective activity. Consent is demonstrated by participation.

    Hence, the inherantly moral nature of capitalism, especially when compared to all coercive state regimes, of any stripe, where as has been most cogently pointed out by, of all people, Noam Chomsky!, consent is to one degree or another largely manufactured.

    I currently favor a Natural Law derived Techno-Kritarchy myself, with coercive taxation reserved soley for military purposes. That’d be my personally desired flavor of anarcho-capitalism.

  • Stevo

    Mr. Micklethwait’s argument is pretty weak. He bases his argument on very vague definitions of happiness.
    He claims optimism is equal to happiness, yet optimism is triggered by more than monetary or capital rewards. Optimism is more of a reaction to cognition, which is too unpredictable among individuals to control with money or wealth. The idea that the governmnt breeds pessimism also suffers from the same errors as his first arguement. Even if it were true, one could argue that the government breeds pessimism because it does in fact concentrate on problem sovling, whereas capitalism tends to involve ignoring problems.