I learned about the book “In Pursuit of Happiness and Good Government” through an article in Reason magazine leading up to the 1992 election.
The editor had asked a number of influential thinkers to recommend a book for the new president to read (whether George H.W. Bush or Bill Clinton). The most frequent choice was “In Pursuit of Happiness and Good Government.”
“In Pursuit of Happiness” has never been all that popular because it talks about policy in broad terms. But its general approach is also what makes it so valuable. In a word, what are we trying to accomplish with public policy and what are the constraints in using government to achieve various ends?
Murray uses a modified version of Maslow’s hierarchy as his framework: material needs, safety, dignity and self-esteem, and self-actualization. Individuals have goals in each category. It follows that government policy should aim to be helpful — or at least to avoid harm — in each of those categories.
Murray notes that there are often trade-offs between the categories, especially with public policy. What if government policy makes a modest gain in one area but at the expense of other goals? For example, the government might provide material support in a way that undermines dignity or self-actualization. This leads
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Murray also describes “thresholds” and “enabling conditions.” “Thresholds” are the minimal amounts of a category required to have a satisfying life.
For example, one needs “enough” food, clothing, shelter, human relationships, etc. — to survive and at least minimally thrive. Reaching the thresholds is vital. Exceeding thresholds can certainly be an improvement, but on average, the gains are surprisingly modest. For example, people report similar levels of happiness whether they are barely above or far above threshold levels.
“Enabling conditions” can be considered part of a government’s responsibility — setting up conditions that enable people to achieve happiness on their own terms.
For example, government should help provide safety for its citizens; might provide material support up to a threshold for the indigent; and should broadly establish a general environment in which people can pursue dignity and self-actualization in their daily lives. Again, getting to thresholds is vital. Beyond that, government will not be able to accomplish nearly as much — and might easily interfere with the pursuit of happiness, given policy trade-offs.
With a more thorough view of personal and policy goals, the possibility of trade-offs looms large. Early in the book, Murray conducts a thought experiment.
If you and your spouse were to die, would you rather that your children be raised by people in Thailand — who have the thresholds in terms of material goods and safety — and completely share your values. Or would you rather have them raised by Americans who are wealthy but have troubling values? Most people would choose the former, implying that there’s much more to life and happiness than access to material standards of living.
Murray concludes with the role of what Edmund Burke called “little platoons” — the small, community-based groups (schools, churches, civic groups, etc.) in which we find much of our support, friendship, resources, etc. In little platoons, we’re more likely to find fulfillment and true help — not just for material goals but to pursue the higher ends for which we have been created. State and federal governments are not little platoons, but they play a vital role in establishing an environment in which little platoons can be effective.
“In Pursuit of Happiness and Good Government” and Murray’s earlier work, “Losing Ground,” continue to be must-reads for those who are interested in implementing good public policy. Murray doesn’t provide a ton of answers.
But in the context of complex issues like personal happiness and public policy, asking good questions is at least half of the answer. Put these books on the top of your list.
Eric Schansberg, Ph.D., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, is a professor of economics at Indiana University Southeast. Send comments to email@example.com.