Seamanship Quotation

“In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination.”
— from Michael Oakeshott's
Political Education” (1951)

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Does UK’s David Cameron need to know if you’re happy?

We live in a world where people think happiness is a condition, but it’s not; it’s a sensation. It’s momentary. So do I have little moments of happiness? Yes. Is that my general condition? No. Is that anyone’s general condition? I can’t believe that’s the case. Are there people that are generally more buoyant than I am? Yes, most people. I don’t think of myself as being unhappy, I think of myself as being morose, but it’s just natural, it’s not my circumstances so much. I can be in bad circumstances like anyone else, or I can be in good circumstances, but in general, if you broke into my apartment and I didn’t know you were there, you would not see me whistling around the house.”
—Fran Lebowitz, The New York Times, November 21, 2010, p. AR 14
The sensation of happiness is usually noticed when you are in the midst of pursuing other things. Happiness isn’t something others can offer you. On the other hand, bliss can be effortlessly experienced with outside help. Of course, bliss, and its attendant dependencies, including drugs, has long exercised the state. Now, the more self-consciously sophisticated governments are starting to worry about happiness as well.
It is reported that along with French President Nicolas Zarkozy, UK Prime Minister David Cameron is determined to measure comprehensively the “psychological and physical wellbeing” of the people. It hasn’t been determined whether there will be one “simple happiness index.” Nevertheless, with an effective majority in a unitary state, Cameron and his social planners hope to be able to give the survey data a central place in the evaluation of public policy. (Canadian and American scholars are highly respected in this field, but happiness, needless to say, hasn’t been sorted out as a federal or provincial responsibility.)
Imagine a cabinet committee pouring over Fran Lebowitz’ completed questionnaire.
Most Brits, like most Canadians, would promptly answer the questions and generate extensive data about public health, social integration, and personal expectations about the future. However, will this information alter the imperatives of political leadership? Should leaders make it their business to make us happy?
As with most Conservatives, it’s not surprising that Mr. Cameron looks for ways to demonstrate breadth and informed compassion. And in trying to do so he has not yielded his austere economic priorities. However, there’s something suspect about trying to make a political science and, ultimately, a national public agenda out of the pursuit of happiness by individuals.
Local councils and ratepayer groups make it their business to sustain and enhance community well-being. That’s the heart of local politics. And we know that community solidarity bolsters psychological well-being. However, the governments of great nations—and great nations as well—serve other masters. Indeed, history shows that many of the decisions of prime ministers and presidents that rightfully make history are made in defiance of those conditions that shore up happy communities.
Greater Britain and the federations of Canada and the United States exist not to maximize personal happiness, stabilize neighbourhoods or increase ground-level human contact, but to enhance collective security and sustainable prosperity. These two national goals, in the short term, can actually strain feelings of personal satisfaction and well-being. To be safe in today’s world, for instance, countries need competitive economies, and competitive economies generate constant innovation, which, in turn, destroys jobs and industries that can no longer compete.
These disruptive national tasks, fortunately, are not in fundamental conflict with a positive social order. Adam Smith observed two hundred years ago, “It is in the progressive state, while the society is advancing to the further acquisition, rather than when it has acquired its full complement of riches, that the condition of … the great body of the people, seems to be the happiest and the most comfortable. It is hard in the stationary, and miserable in the declining state.”[i]
Yes, Mr. Cameron, as you have said, there is more to life than money. As you strive to restore the economy, however, be comforted by the fact that prosperity has encouraged people to be more tolerant, more willing to settle disputes peacefully, more inclined to favour democracy rather than the other way around.

[i] Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, edited by Edwin Cannan (New York: Modern Library, 1937), p. 81

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