Thursday, July 21, 2011

#202 / The Politics Of Happiness

As I make my daily entries into this blog, I am frequently amazed that we have (collectively) thought about almost everything already. I almost always find illustrations for my entries by typing my title into an image search engine, and then seeing the pictures that appear. Relevant pictures always do, and rather often I find that the phrase I have chosen as a title for my blog entry is already the title of a full-fledged book. If that isn't true, I've often found that my title has existence as a tee-shirt slogan.

The Economics of Happiness, mentioned yesterday, is a book I discovered by the method I have just described. Same thing for today's book, The Politics of Happiness.

From reading the review, it appears to me that Derek Bok's book, as pictured here, is making the case that "public policy in the U.S. has been so dominated by the drive for economic growth that we have neglected to explore and enact policies that could promote the well-being and happiness of Americans." In other words, the "economics" of happiness and the "politics" of happiness, as these two books see them, are likely to be related. This is, of course, not surprising.

My actual thought, however, when I decided to say something about the "politics of happiness," and picked that title, was not to go where Derek Bok's book wishes to take us. That's a fine destination, and worth a visit I am sure, but I would like to suggest that we consult Hannah Arendt, instead.

Arendt was, in my opinion, the greatest political philosopher of the twentieth century, and I can't think of a book she wrote that I haven't found both illuminating and inspiring. My favorite of all of Arendt's books is On Revolution, published in 1963. Chapter Three is entitled, "The Pursuit of Happiness." This is the phrase, we all remember, that is a key part of the "defining phrase" of our Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all [persons] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights; that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness [and] that to secure these rights, Governments are instituted ...
As Arendt notes, the use of the word "happiness" as part of the third term in this equation (which seems patterned on but is really quite different from another, similar equation: "life, liberty, and property") must mean something. It must mean, in fact, that the "pursuit of happiness" is politically significant. There must be something important about "happiness," and its pursuit, in the political context of the revolution that led to the establishment of our current system of government.

Parenthetically, it is worth noting, as I have noted before, that the Declaration of Independence says that the whole reason that "governments are instituted" is to "secure" the enumerated rights. Government is not, in other words, to be seen as "the problem" with respect to the security of our rights. To the contrary, in our history, government is "the solution."

End of parenthesis.

The key question here is why on earth would the Founding Fathers have thought that the "pursuit of happiness" was an inherent and unalienable "right," somehow equivalent to the right to life, and the right to liberty? Something really is going on here, because we don't conventionally think of "happiness" and its pursuit as being as important as our right to life itself. Yet that does seem to be what the Declaration of Independence is saying, and it is upon this Declaration that we have based our entire national existence.

Arendt's book suggests that we take the words seriously. And here is what she says about them:
The very fact that the word "happiness" was chosen in laying claim to a share in public power indicates strongly that there existed in the country, prior to the revolution, such a thing as "public happiness," and that men knew that they could not be altogether "happy" if their happiness was located and enjoyed only in private life.
What this says, amazingly enough, is that those whose actions brought the United States into being understood that "politics" equates to "happiness," and that we can never be truly happy if we pursue our lives as if were were mere individuals. We fulfill ourselves, together, as we create the political world in which we most immediately reside.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thanks for your comment!