THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS AND THE ROLE OF GOVERNMENT
The Declaration of Independence asserted we all have an unalienable right to the pursuit of happiness, yet a recent public survey suggests Americans are as unhappy as we have been anytime in the past half-century. It stands to reason that the government we created to give form to the Founding Father’s ideas should make it easy for people to do the things that will make them content. What are they? I put nine at the top of the list.
Enough money to pay for life’s basics, a safe place to live, and good health. An intimate relationship, and the love of a family. A sense of belonging to a community, the support of trusted friends, a general sense of fairness in our daily lives, and a sense of purpose.
It is true that each of us bears personal responsibility for creating these pillars of happiness for ourselves. It is equally true that the policies our governments follow can make it easier or harder. Our public discourse will be different than it has been and more meaningful to more people if we frame it around these essential aspects of a happy life.
For example, politicians talk a lot about GDP growth and job creation. Surely these are important. Just as surely both have advanced impressively over the past four decades, but the ability of American workers to earn enough money to pay for life’s basics has stagnated. That means our economy is not doing the job it must for people to be happy, and we ought to search for policies that would spread the wealth more broadly.
Since the cost of a place to live has risen faster than incomes in many parts of the country for a long time our economy is doing a lousy job of helping people to secure a home. We need more smart support for affordable housing.
It is unlikely there is a public official anywhere in America who does not know that the United States is the only rich country in the world without universal health insurance, and that the cost of medical care is vastly higher here than elsewhere. Covid-19 survivors who found themselves stuck with huge surprise bills were only the most recent victims of our system’s unconscionable flaws. True leaders would rationalize it.
Politicians love to describe themselves as promoting family values, but some define family so narrowly that it applies to less than half of our country, which these days includes tons of single moms, unmarried couples, and same sex households. We offer less support for childcare than other wealthy nations, and we cut earned income tax credits if a father moves in with the mother of his children. Both policies are at odds with family support.
When it comes to intimate relationships, many elected representatives are more awkward on the subject than a 1950s parent explaining the birds and the bees to a pimply-faced teenager. Others seek to deny the legal right and psychological need of gay Americans to know love. These are not public stands designed to promote people’s well-being.
Deliberate efforts to polarize the electorate for political gain are at odds with the notion of community, and can put friendships under enormous strain. Elected officials who favor one group over another, like voting rules designed to make it hard for African Americans and Latinos to vote, or who decline to hold law enforcement officials accountable for unjustifiable violence, particularly towards people of color, violate basic concepts of fairness. So do politicians who take huge amounts of money from political action committees, and then support laws that favor the organizations that fund them. We need to reject elected officials who behave that way.
Our leaders are unable to articulate a purpose that we all can rally round these days. How about the pursuit of happiness? The famous phrase ought to resonate with all Americans. And then let’s judge our elected officials at all levels of government on how well they do developing policies to promote it.
Chris McNickle writes about New York government and politics. His most recent book is Bloomberg: A Billionaire’s Ambition.