Working, in “The Happiness Formula”

Today’s New York Times contains another meditation on the intersection of public policy, economics, and happiness, this time by Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute. There are, of course, many ways to run with this topic, and many responses to the policies Brooks believes his view entails (most of which are not mentioned in today’s op-ed). But Brooks’ piece today focuses on the moral and psychological benefits of work. After perplexingly breezing through some social science statistics that seem to undermine his project (evidently, only 12% of our own happiness is under our control), Brooks writes that faith, family, community, and work are central to our happiness. The remainder of the essay is focused on work, and namely that “the secret to happiness through work is earned success.” He closes with some policy notes:

Free enterprise does not mean shredding the social safety net, but championing policies that truly help vulnerable people and build an economy that can sustain these commitments. It doesn’t mean reflexively cheering big business, but leveling the playing field so competition trumps cronyism. It doesn’t entail “anything goes” libertinism, but self-government and self-control. And it certainly doesn’t imply that unfettered greed is laudable or even acceptable.

Free enterprise gives the most people the best shot at earning their success and finding enduring happiness in their work. It creates more paths than any other system to use one’s abilities in creative and meaningful ways, from entrepreneurship to teaching to ministry to playing the French horn. This is hardly mere materialism, and it is much more than an economic alternative. Free enterprise is a moral imperative.

It’s an interesting piece to see what looks like at least some aisle-crossing by the President of a conservative think tank to the readership of a newspaper often regarded as liberal. That context does, though, make it seem like Brooks is cherry-picking his policy recommendations in order to make this approach more palatable. Regardless, I thought I’d note two basic problems I had with the piece. First, Brooks identifies four values as the building blocks of the happiness that is within our control—faith, family, community, and work. He then defends free enterprise as the best way to achieve happiness through work for most people. But what of the effects of free enterprise on faith, family, and community?

Second, there’s this assertion in that last paragraph—the idea that free enterprise “creates more paths than any other system to use one’s abilities in creative and meaningful ways.” I’m not so sure. It certainly seems like the general laissez-faire attitude allows for the proliferation of more occupations and walks of life than, say, a command economy. But is there a reason to think that the market won’t under-provide “creative paths”?

It would be very hopeful to believe in a one-to-one correspondence between the abilities demanded by the market and the abilities that individuals find they can “creatively and meaningfully” exercise. What’s more likely is that a certain amount of the demand for labor that exists in the market is a demand for labor that does not feel particularly creative or meaningful. There is, of course, something to be said for labor deriving meaning not from the activities that work itself entails, but rather from the more general feelings of being a productive member of society, supporting a family, etc. But Brooks appears to be actively avoiding that stance with his examples—minister, teacher, French horn player. And it’s not much of a stretch to think that some public subsidy of arts and education, for instance, generates more teachers and French horn players than the market alone.

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