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No, The Government Can’t Buy You Happiness With Other People’s Money


If you think most contemporary feminism is silly and shallow, and promises what it can not possibly deliver, I’m with you. Don’t miss the adorable article by Jill Filipovic in which the celebrated feminist writer explains that happiness is a “political act.” The subhead says, “Insisting on pleasure for all Americans is not batty or frivolous; it is a matter of life-or-death,” which is a bit batty, because who would think of conflating happiness, pleasure, and matters “of life and death.”

Filipovic begins her argument by asserting the words “pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence mean that “[t]he idea that government must facilitate the ability of the individual to seek happiness is in our national DNA.” She goes on to explain that Americans have been doing it all wrong since 1776. First of all, we are too isolated in our pursuits: “We’ve so far approached happiness as an individual mandate, achieved via ‘self-care,’ meditation apps, yoga retreats and gratitude journals. And that’s great[…]”

If Filipovic only meets people who seek happiness in meditation apps, she needs to get out more. Like many other Americans, I find meaning in family and communal life, and have several hobbies. I look for fulfillment in personal, social, and political spheres. This is a normal American way of life.

The most important component of Filipovic’s happiness program is, per feminist custom, political. She runs down the welfare state wishlist that’s been around for decades, adding the recent invention of new baby leaves for dads. The writer believes her article provides the philosophical foundation for a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate. I’m afraid she’s right.

Government Doesn’t Make You Happy. You Do

What Filipovic doesn’t know, but our Founding Fathers did, is that a government can accumulate the power to make people very, very unhappy. For instance, there are many unhappy Uyghurs in Chinese concentration camps today, and many unhappy women in Iran slaughtered and imprisoned for the simple act of removing their head covers.

That’s why our freedoms are negative. Our founding documents outline what the government is not allowed to do—for instance, infringe on freedom of expression and gun ownership. That’s because government far more often infringes on happiness than facilitates it.

Likewise, “pursuit of happiness” means the exact opposite of what Filipovic seems to believe. It doesn’t stipulate that the state “must facilitate,” but that government needs to get out of the way of individuals’ pursuits. Of course it’s possible the author knows that — I mean Civics 101, right? — but she also believes in a “living breathing” Declaration of Independence, which can mean anything she wants it to mean. She must forgive me for considering deliberate misreadings that turn an idea on its head dishonest.

Happiness Is a Subjective State of Mind

Happiness is not an act but a state of mind, and as such it’s highly subjective. For instance, some journalists in California would be happy to write more than 35 articles a year for a single publication, but the new law caps their submissions. The childless author is fond of the idea that both mom and dad should be offered identical parental leaves after the birth of a child. Back in the real world, most women prefer to stay with the baby, and most men, as my husband once put it, would like to go out and kill an elk.

Despite being inaugurated a feminist thought leader, Filipovic entirely lacks the lived experience of events that most strongly influence a woman’s outlook on life, and for that reason can only guess what choices would lead to happiness. She also fails to consider that happiness means different things for different people.

Different Things Make Different People Happy

Filipovic asks: “A happiness politic would force us to ask: What do we want from our government? What do we want from our society?”

The idea to ask constituents what they want is not new, but is this a royal we? In a free society, one would expect a range of contradictory answers. People don’t generally agree on what would make them happy.

If Americans disagree on policy it could be because we simply have different ideas about how to pursue happiness. For instance, some of us might have done some thinking, and concluded that federal government is incapable of providing quality health care, and it makes us unhappy to contemplate or live with a government-provided system when we know we could have better if government would just get out of the way..

What do we make of the discord? To quote Larry Elder, “Conservatives consider liberals well-intentioned, but misguided. Liberals consider conservatives not only wrong, but really, really bad people.” I don’t know if all conservatives work this way, or all liberals do, but Filipovic certainly seems to believe that her political opponents are incapable of rational pursuit of self-interest.

What makes her cartoonish ideas about conservatives possible is an uncomplicated view of human nature.

No, Happiness Doesn’t Necessarily Make Great Art

To give her argument some sort of gravitas, Filipovic mentions Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the idea that certain conditions have to be met before an individual can move up to a higher level of personal development and societal functioning. Maslow’s hierarchy is highly simplistic, and has long been criticized as such. People are perfectly capable of self-abnegation and self-sacrifice, and many can flourish amidst squalor.

So Filipovic’s assertion that single payer plus greater government spending on arts will lead to more and better arts and, therefore, happiness is Maslow-inspired shallowness.

Much of the world’s greatest works of art were created from a place of a profound sadness and discomfort, and often by people who either didn’t want to experience, or were constitutionally incapable of experiencing, happiness. That is not to say that wealth can’t buy art, but that Maslow and universal health-care don’t belong in this discussion. She might want to observe that the United States, with all its wealth, already has some dynamic art scenes.

Maybe Filipovic should read a little Dostoevsky. Regardless, because her outlook is so uncomplicated, it allows the writer to be enviably confident: of course paternity leaves are just and desirable because they redistribute housework between mothers and fathers who are by nature interchangeable! It’s just too obvious to her.

And if some people don’t see it the same way, that’s because there is something wrong with them. It’s not even that they might be mistaken, but that they are evil and stupid.

Most things that make us happy—like romantic love, creative pursuits, and having faith in something greater than ourselves—cannot be quantified, and are outside of what any government can provide. Yet mainstream feminist and socialists are ready to open their bedroom doors to let ideology in, thinking that correct politics will lead to happiness or pleasure.

No pro-lifer has an agenda nearly that intrusive. The challenge conservatives face is to explain the diversity of human experience, value of privacy, and shortsightedness of the socialist-feminist approach.