Thursday, April 24, 2008

What policy implications does Charles Murray draw from his pursuit of happiness perspective?

The second half of Charles Murray’s book, "In pursuit of happiness and good government", is concerned with the implications for public policy of his perspective on what the pursuit of happiness involves. (The first half of the book is reviewed here.)

The main link between the two halves of the book is a view about human nature. This is the view that “people need to be self-determining, accountable and absorbed in stretching their capacities, just as they need food and shelter” (p 243). What allows people to fulfil their own nature is the process whereby individuals respond to challenge, risk and reward (p 140).

Another point about human nature that is introduced into the second half of the book is explicit recognition of the importance of community: “The pursuit of individual happiness cannot be an atomistic process; it will naturally and always occur in the context of communities. The state’s role in enabling the pursuit of happiness depends ultimately on nurturing not individuals, but the associations they form” (p 213).

The author discusses several public policy implications that are associated with the nature of humans and the pursuit of happiness.

  • When people are given the opportunity to advance their own interests in the political arena they do not behave like angels. Murray endorses Madison’s famous statement: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary” (pp 134-141). His point is that political decision-making inevitably results in unintended consequences.
  • Historically, people tend to have a good record of performance when left alone to live their lives and undertake cooperative ventures with others (including running schools, hospitals etc). This means that rather than just design policy solutions to problems in education and health systems etc we should take a step back and ask why existing systems are dysfunctional (Chapter 11).
  • “There must be a stopping point, some rule by which governments limit what they do for people ... because happiness is impossible unless people are left alone to take trouble over important things” (p 221).
  • When social policies perform roles previously performed by community organizations people tend to become detached from the communities in which they live (p 228-9).
  • Before imposing regulation it is important to consider what purpose regulation is intended to serve rather than evaluating performance in terms of targets that seem appropriate. For example, a lowering of road deaths following introduction of more stringent speed restrictions does not necessarily indicate that the policy is appropriate. It is important to remember that people don’t need to have the speed limit reduced in order to obtain the safety benefits of driving their own cars more slowly. The purpose of setting a speed limit should be to reduce the probability of accidents that are caused by speeding motorists who are a danger to other road users (Chapter 9).

It seems to me that an important message is to beware of the tendency of political leaders to respond to voters’ concerns about particular problems by setting targets and developing strategies to meet those targets in the absence of any understanding of why the problems exist in the first place. Good government is not about papering over cracks.


Melissa G said...

I couldn't agree more with your concluding statement. The question is, how do you influence the ways in which governments behave? And how do you transform education systems to ensure that individuals are being challenged in positive ways? More importantly, how do we ensure that ethics and morality are integrated into governance and development?

Winton Bates said...

Hi Melissa. It seems to me that if we let people opt out of the welfare state that would solve a lot of problems.

For example, let parents decide what kind of schooling they want for their kids.

See my post about opting out, here: