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April 4, 2012

HARBESON: The pursuit of happiness

> SOUTHERN INDIANA — In the continuing effort to justify the manipulation of the market and interference in people’s lives, governments love to collect data. For a long time now, the federal government has been using straight economic measures such as the Gross National Product, the idea being that a country with strong economic output is doing well. But now government officials are looking into ways to measure happiness.

I can’t imagine a more subjective concept to measure, but the Department of Health and Human Services, with full support of the Obama Administration, has been spending your money trying to define happiness and a method of measuring it. The intended goal is to develop a new indicator for well-being, called Gross National Happiness, which proponents believe is a better way to evaluate than using economic-based measurements.

The idea of Gross National Happiness (GNH) was started by a King in a little country called Bhutan in the 1970s and the idea seems to be catching on because the country hosted a United Nations conference in New York this week to discuss the idea. [Does anyone else find it odd to hear that the United States wants to emulate a monarchy?]

Determining happiness can vary widely from individual to individual, and I don’t see how you can even measure such a thing for a collective — which may be the point. After all, it would be much harder to argue with any results of such a subjective measurement than it would be of economic data.

In addition, no matter what the GNH turned out to be, the government could use it to justify more government involvement. If the GNH determines that people are happy, then the government could justify continuing its current actions, perhaps even increasing them in an effort to get even more of the government-approved form of happiness. And if it turned out people are not happy enough, then they would of course develop all sorts of wonderful interventions intended to increase the government-approved happiness scale.

If GNH is bad enough, will the government declare a war on unhappiness? If so, we all know what that means — the problem would get worse. People would be even more unhappy, which would give the government justification to intervene more, creating a new bureaucracy to support the war. It would help in part, though, I guess because the people making money off the unhappiness war would be happy they have a job.

It feels strange to talk about any government involvement in happiness, even just the measuring of it, considering the ideas that were clearly laid out in the Declaration of Independence. Those writers understood that government can’t centrally plan happiness. It is an individual pursuit of what is often a moving target because circumstances and desires that define happiness for a given individual can change over time. For example, as people get older, happiness simply becomes a successful bowel movement.

If the government ends up developing a GNH indicator, will another one of the primary concepts that defines freedom — the pursuit of happiness — no longer be considered the responsibility of the individual?

There is good reason to be concerned if the government starts to define and measure happiness. After all, look at what’s happened to education since the government started to define and measure that concept. No one seems happy about the condition of education and there are constant efforts to reform it. And yet, society is so dependent that most people would be very unhappy if government was not involved. Taking responsibility for education is completely beyond the imagination of most people.

Could something similar happen with the individual pursuit of happiness? I don’t know but that sure is an unhappy thought.

Clark County resident Debbie Harbeson is happy to hear from you. Write her at Debbie@debbieharbeson.com.

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