September 14th, 2003

elongate politburo messianic strife

Interesting political question

From The Futile Pursuit of Happiness (good article; via polyrhythm):
While walking in Pittsburgh one afternoon, Loewenstein tells me that he doesn't see how anybody could study happiness and not find himself leaning left politically; the data make it all too clear that boosting the living standards of those already comfortable, such as through lower taxes, does little to improve their levels of well-being, whereas raising the living standards of the impoverished makes an enormous difference.
Nevertheless, he and Gilbert (who once declared in an academic paper, ''Windfalls are better than pratfalls, A's are better than C's, December 25 is better than April 15, and everything is better than a Republican administration'') seem to lean libertarian in regard to pushing any kind of prescriptive agenda.
''We're very, very nervous about overapplying the research,'' Loewenstein says. ''Just because we figure out that X makes people happy and they're choosing Y, we don't want to impose X on them. I have a discomfort with paternalism and with using the results coming out of our field to impose decisions on people.''

Fascinating topic. If you really do -- scientifically, provably, desmonstrably -- know better than someone else what will make them happy ... To what extent does that provide a moral mandate, or even justification, to act on that knowledge?

As a side point, I haven't read the original research, but the article doesn't seem to mention the happiness value of believing that one is following one's own choices; I can't imagine that any significant fraction of people would be happy being given mandates on how to live their lives, even if a piece of paper is waved around proving they'll be better off for it.

So -- assuming for purposes of this argument that the basic function of government is, or should be, to increase happiness among its citizens in the most optimal way possible -- how do you justify taking a stand for or against non-trivial social regulations? ("Trivial" being banning murder, etc.; which are a little more fundamental than being happy.)

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