Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Freedom-Happiness Curve

As you know, the silly season (a.k.a the U.S. Presidential election season) has begun in earnest.  A few weeks ago, the first major debate of the season was held in New Hampshire.  As expected, the candidates were asked a variety of questions:  where they stood on health care reform, what they would do to boost the economy, would they have intervened in Libya, and so forth.  While these are important questions, they focus on how the candidates would handle specific issues, rather than what their overall philosophy is.  If I had the opportunity to ask each candidate one question, I would ask them, "how would you draw the Freedom-Happiness Curve?"

The Freedom-Happiness Curve is a device of my own invention, so it probably requires some explanation.  It is a graph which shows the aggregate happiness of a society versus the amount of freedom its citizens have.  Here is what a typical interpretation of the curve might look like:

The left side of the curve makes perfect sense.  In a society with little or no freedoms (think North Korea as an example), most people are going to be very unhappy.  In a "not-free" society, people are told what to do, what to think, who to worship, by the government.  Without the freedom to determine their own destiny, the population as a whole is generally not very happy with their situation.  They will even risk life and limb to escape to a more-free society.

As more freedoms are added, people generally become more happy.  They are allowed to make more choices for themselves and set their own course in their lives.  Thus, the curve rises as society becomes more free.

The right side of the curve might be counter-intuitive at first.  It shows that society's happiness actually declines after a certain point as people become gain freedoms.  Most people think of freedom as being a "more is better" type of proposition.  However, in practice, it is not.  Consider the extreme where people are allowed to do whatever they want whenever they want without any restrictions from the government whatsoever.  There is a word for this:  anarchy.  Anarchy is true and complete freedom, but most people are not happy under anarchy.  Without the rule of law, the person with the most guns and the most money might be happy.  However, everybody else is left to fend for themselves.  A modern example of an anarchy state is the failed state of Somalia.  Nobody would argue that Somalia is a happy place by any stretch of the imagination.  That is why the curve declines after a certain point.

An important goal of any good government should be to provide enough freedoms and yet enough restrictions to maximize a society's happiness.  Naturally, politicians disagree at what level of freedom would maximize happiness.  Politicians on the libertarian end of the spectrum ("that government is best which governs least") might argue that government should provide the bare minimum of services to maintain order and commerce and not seek to restrict freedoms any more that is necessary.  Therefore, they might draw the curve along these lines:

Note how, under this philosophy, the belief is that society's happiness is maximizes at a point where people have quite a lot of freedoms.  The curve still descends when there is too much freedom because even staunch libertarians believe that some amount of government control is necessary for basics like law & order, defense, roads, and the like.

On the other side of the spectrum are those who might view government's role as being more paternalistic, where government needs to step in to provide more than just the basics for people:  a baseline retirement, some form of health care for those in need, and even employment if necessary.  Franklin Roosevelt, with his New Deal during the 1930's, believed that the Government needed to take a role in sustaining the happiness of society even if it meant less freedoms (mandatory Social Security withholding, taxes to pay for job creations, increased regulatory scrutiny of companies, etc). 

Another example is the heightened security which we face as part of the War on Terror.  At the airports, we are restricted in what we can carry past the security checkpoints.  Being forced to buy water at exorbitant prices in the concourse might be necessary to prevent somebody from smuggling flammable liquid on board a plane; however, it is a restriction on our freedom.  Nevertheless, because the thought of exploding at 30,000 feet is not a very pleasant thing to ponder, this restriction on our freedom increases our overall happiness.

The curve of somebody who believed in this paternalistic philosophy of government might look something like this:

Note how this curve peaks out at a level that is closer to "less free" side.  This represents the belief that while basic freedoms need to be maintained, the government needs to provide restrictions on freedom in order to uplift the whole of society.

Asking politicians whether their world view is aligned to the libertarian curve or the paternalistic curve (or something in between) would go a long way in identifying the core philosophical beliefs of that candidate.  It would also help to predict how that person might react to some new issue which arises that the moderator did not have the foresight about which to ask.  The Freedom-Happiness Curve also can provide us with a tool to identify our own political beliefs.  How much freedom do you think we need in order to maximize society's happiness?  How much restriction on our freedom are we willing to endure?  There is no simple answer to these questions, but it is important that we start to ask our leaders and ourselves these questions.  That way we can have an intelligent dialogue on what we want our country to become.

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