Saturday, April 20, 2013

happy to be free

Where are Jonathan Swift and Mark Twain when we need them?

Take this headline from yesterday's The Oregonian -- "Kitzhaber seeks a measure of happiness for Oregon."  While the legislature plots ways to increase the tax burden of its citizens, the governor of Oregon is slipping away to a high-end resort in Bhutan to learn more about the "gross national happiness" index.

The concept is not new.  Advocates of a certain political bent have long argued that the "gross domestic product" (GDP) is a far too limited tool to measure economic progress.  Instead, governments should measure the economic progress of their country with an index that takes into account other factors.  The result is a scientific-sounding number that measures national happiness.

The number of happiness formulas is limited only by the political agendas of the number crunchers.  Take this example from the Happy Planet (a name that conjures up egg roll appetizers) Index people. 

Their index is based on "experienced well-being" (how people self-report their own happiness), national life expectancy, and the country's "ecological footprint" (a per capita measure of the amount of land required to sustain a country’s consumption patterns). 

Those three numbers are then arithmetically manipulated to create another number to reveal, mirabile dictu, a guide for governments to justify additional intervention in the lives of private citizens.  The equivalent of senior citizens gathering over coffee to discuss their cholesterol levels.

As silly as the phony scientific patina sounds, the resulting national rankings reveal the weakness of the project. The Happy Planet Index tells us places like Cuba and Bangladesh are the world's national Disneylands.  But change the indicators a bit and the sullen Danes are the world's smiley faces.

The Kitzhaber trek to find Shangri-La struck me as doubly ironic last night.  I was reading Ross Douthat's critique of contemporary American religious thought in Bad Religion, and hit this speed bump.  To paraphrase Douthat: for many Americans, there is no higher philosophical attainment than a universal goal of harmony and happiness.

Of course, the goal of seeking happiness is not new in America thought.  It is one of Tom Jefferson's big three examples of the unalienable rights God has given mankind.  Over time, though, that pursuit of happiness has slipped away from its contextual moorings of loving one's neighbor as one self into a more solipsistic pursuit.

Or, as Douthat puts it: "But a tolerant society is not necessarily a just one.  Men may smile at their neighbors without loving them and decline to judge their fellow citizens' beliefs out of a broader indifference to their fate."

This past week we have seen the "pursuit of happiness" put to the test in Boston where evil once again touched a public event.  I find it interesting that we often see the best aspects of the American character when they confront tragedies like this.

With the smoke still in the air, ordinary neighbors waded into the chaos to help their injured neighbors.  With no sense of personal gain.  Often in disregard of their personal safety. 

We have a word for this.  Heroes. 

There is much that is wrong in American society these days.  But we tend to disregard the underlying strength of American virtue.  The type of spirit where neighbors voluntarily gather to help raise barns -- all without the demands of governments or the happiness nags.

I wish Governor Kitzhaber well in his quest for happiness.  I suspect, though, if he simply spent more time talking to his fellow citizens, he would discover that Oregonians understand true joy far better than the abacus set.

No comments: