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Sunday, January 1, 1989

Book Review: In Pursuit Of Happiness And Good Government by Charles Murray


Simon and Schuster, 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020 • 1988 • 301 pages • $17.95 cloth

The 1988 national election campaign offered a contest over whether Republicans or Democrats could create more and better social programs to help the family, educate and care for children, and above all, alleviate poverty. “Poverty,” writes Charles Murray, “has in recent years been to policy analysts what damnation is to a Baptist preacher . . . . It is the generic stand-in for the social problems of our age. Solve the riddle of poverty, we have often seemed to hope, and the rest of our problems will solve themselves.”

Murray’s first successful book, Losing Ground, argued persuasively the now widely accepted thesis that poverty programs are part of the problem rather than the solution. Now, in this new book, he suggests that, in an even wider sense (no matter what the politicians say) the failure of social policy is not a failure of compassion or human feeling—it is a failure to connect cause and effect; a failure to have realizable goals and standards; a failure to see that all policies have unintended outcomes, but that those unintended outcomes can be positive rather than negative, if they are policies that restrain government and maximize individual choice.

Adam Smith, Bastiat, Mises, Hayek, and Milton Friedman have explained unintended outcomes in economics. Now, Charles Murray details for us how both the invisible hand and the invisible foot work in that vast spider web of regulation, redistribution, and indoctrination that we call “social policy” today—coming to many of the same conclusions as these freedom philosophers, although his argument doesn’t build on theirs.

“First, I will associate myself with a particular set of views,” he says bluntly. “Reduced to their essentials, these views are that man acting in his private capacity—if restrained from the use of force—is resourceful and benign, fulfilling his proper destiny; while man acting as a public and political creature is resourceful and dangerous, inherently destructive of the rights and freedoms of his fellowmen. I will explain these views using the language and logic of the American Founding Fathers. Next, I will suggest that if one accepts that set of views of man, the way we assess social policy is pushed in certain directions.”

He starts this book by asking, “What constitutes success in social policy?” and goes on: “For most of America’s history, this was not a question that needed asking because there was no such thing as a ‘social policy’ to succeed or fail . . . . As late as the 1930s, there was still no federal ‘policy’ worthy of the label affecting the family, for example, or education, or religion, or voluntary associations.”

Murray finds complex answers to his question by going back to the beginning, to the Declaration of Independence, and re-examining that little-understood phrase, “the pursuit of happiness.” He starts by asking, “What is happiness?”

There is a long philosophical tradition, or rather, there are two long philosophical traditions that assumed the question could be answered definitively and attempted to do so. The first stemmed from Aristotle, focused on the nature of the good life, and attempted to define and rank all aspects of happiness. The second, which arose in the eighteenth century, stressed individual psychological satisfaction, but both traditions agreed substantially on how men should pursue happiness—develop those talents you have, do your job well, raise a family, contribute to the community—yen though they disagreed profoundly on such issues as whether or not an outsider could rank “happiness” for others.

“It was not until the twentieth century,” says Murray, “that social science dispensed with the intellectual content of both traditions and began to define happiness by the response to questionnaire items.” Despite this refreshing irreverence, he proceeds to examine more modern approaches to the question also, and summarizes a wealth of argument, experiment, and data collected by contemporary social scientists, to show that there is hard evidence out there that there are objective criteria for the pursuit of happiness.

Government, he says, can provide the “enabling conditions” for this pursuit, a framework that has little or nothing to do with the distribution of material resources other than to protect a functioning market economy. The wrongheaded focus on poverty has obscured the importance of such things as safety from criminals, dignity and self-respect (Murray presents persuasive evidence that self-respect cannot be faked, but results from the successful response to challenge), and finally, the possibility of self-actualization.

Happiness, of course, pertains to individuals-groups, whether united by class, race, creed, or special interest cannot properly be said to be happy. So taking the pursuit of happiness seriously as a standard exposes as meaningless all the aggregate statistics that social policy analysis relies on, statistics showing that a particular policy creates so many jobs, or saves so many lives, or raises so many income levels. Murray hopes to turn the whole field of social policy analysis on its head, by persuading analysts that they should ask instead, what effect will this social policy have on the happiness (properly understood) of the individuals affected by it?

By this standard, our social policies are found sadly wanting. The training program that produces such hopeful aggregate statistics is found overwhelmingly more likely to teach any individual in it that he cannot succeed—only one in 25 trainees actually finds a job. The speed limit that “saves thousands of lives” is, on examination, only infinitesimally raising the chances that any one individual will escape an accident caused by someone else, but it exacts a measurable price in time and money from that same individual. And happiness, properly understood, Murray shows, requires the opportunity to build a self-respect based on efficacious individual action and choice—but those are precisely what most social programs limit or eradicate.

For all its theoretical bent In Pursuit is full of facts, findings in sociology and social psychology, summaries of the differing views of scholars and thinkers, and hardheaded, real world arguments, as well as wonderful “thought experiments” on how associations (“little platoons”) can take the place of government action—how, for instance, people might join together to hire teachers to educate their children, or to limit the depredations of crime.

This is a book to treasure for a number of reasons. Primarily, it is a rare example of a modern liberal arguing himself into a classical liberal stance. Never mind that in the beginning the author seems to imply, for instance, that everyone thinks that food stamps are good—the more you read, the more you will realize that this is a book written by someone who has been a professional policy analyst, for the policy analysis community as well as the general reader, using language and data that can reach that community. Never mind that, like the patron saint of this book, Thomas Jefferson, Murray’s standard for the pursuit of happiness seems to leave room for some government role in fields such as education. A book that begins with the Declaration of Independence and ends by quoting Jefferson on the need for some form of severely limited government is a valuable weapon in the fight for freedom, especially when it is by a fine and original mind whose argument is a pleasure to follow. []

Joan Kennedy Taylor is a former Contributing Editor of The Freeman and the editor of the FEE anthology, Free Trade: The Necessary Foundation for World Peace.