Liberalism is Not Conducive to Happiness
WASHINGTON -- To
bemused conservatives, it looks like yet another example of analytic
overkill by the intelligentsia -- a jobs program for the (mostly
liberal) academic boys (and girls) in the social sciences, whose
quantitative tools have been brought to bear to prove the obvious.
A survey by the Pew
Research Center shows that conservatives are happier than liberals
-- in all income groups. While 34 percent of all Americans call
themselves ``very happy,'' only 28 percent of liberal Democrats
(and 31 percent of moderate or conservative Democrats) do, compared
to 47 percent of conservative Republicans. This finding is niftily
self-reinforcing: It depresses liberals.
do not explain this happiness gap. Republicans have been happier
than Democrats every year since the survey began in 1972. Married
people and religious people are especially disposed to happiness,
and both cohorts vote more conservatively than does the nation
as a whole.
People in the Sun
Belt -- almost entirely red states -- have sunnier dispositions
than Northerners, which could have as much to do with sunshine
as with conservatism. Unless sunshine makes people happy, which
makes them conservative.
Such puzzles show
why social science is not for amateurs. Still, one cannot -- yet
-- be prosecuted for committing theory without a license, so consider
a few explanations of the happiness gap.
Begin with a paradox:
Conservatives are happier than liberals because they are more
pessimistic. Conservatives think the book of Job got it right
(``Man is born unto trouble as the sparks fly upward''), as did
Adam Smith (``There is a great deal of ruin in a nation''). Conservatives
understand that society in its complexity resembles a giant Calder
mobile -- touch it here and things jiggle there, and there, and
way over there. Hence conservatives acknowledge the Law of Unintended
Consequences, which is: The unintended consequences of bold government
undertakings are apt to be larger than, and contrary to, the intended
pessimism is conducive to their happiness in three ways. First,
they are rarely surprised -- they are right more often than not
about the course of events. Second, when they are wrong they are
happy to be so. Third, because pessimistic conservatives put not
their faith in princes -- government -- they accept that happiness
is a function of fending for oneself. They believe that happiness
is an activity -- it is inseparable from the pursuit
The right to pursue
happiness is the essential right that government exists to protect.
Liberals, taking their bearings, whether they know it or not,
from President Franklin Roosevelt's 1936 State of the Union address,
think the attainment of happiness itself, understood in terms
of security and material well-being, is an entitlement that government
has created and can deliver.
On Jan. 3, 1936,
FDR announced that in 34 months his administration had established
a ``new relationship between government and people.'' Amity Shlaes,
a keen student of FDR's departure from prior political premises,
says, ``The New Deal had a purpose beyond curing the Depression.
It was to make people look to Washington for help at all times.''
Henceforth, the federal government would be permanently committed
to serving a large number of constituencies: ``Occasional gifts
to farmers or tariffs for business weren't enough.'' So, liberals:
Smile -- you've won.
normal conservatives -- never mind the gladiators of talk radio;
they are professionally angry -- are less angry than
liberals. Liberals have made this the era of surly automobile
bumpers, millions of them, still defiantly adorned with Kerry-Edwards
and even Gore-Lieberman bumper stickers, faded and frayed like
flags preserved as relics of failed crusades. To preserve these
mementos of dashed dreams, many liberals may be forgoing the pleasures
of buying new cars -- another delight sacrificed on the altar
conscientious liberals cannot enjoy automobiles because there
is global warming to worry about, and the perils of corporate-driven
consumerism which is the handmaiden of bourgeoisie materialism.
And high-powered cars (how many liberals drive Corvettes?) are
metaphors (for America's reckless foreign policy, for
machismo rampant, etc.). And then there is -- was -- all that
rustic beauty paved over for highways. (And for those giant parking
lots at exurban mega-churches. The less said about them, the better).
And automobiles discourage the egalitarian enjoyment of mass transit.
And automobiles, by facilitating suburban sprawl, deny sprawl's
victims -- that word must make an appearance in liberal
laments; and lament is what liberals do -- the uplifting
communitarian experience of high-density living. And automobiles
You see? Liberalism
is a complicated and exacting, not to say grim and scolding, creed.
And not one conducive to happiness.
2006, Washington Post Writers Group