The ONS's effort to measure well-being has produced a backlash. In the Times, Phillip Collins says, to Norm's approval, that "it matters more that a life be freely chosen than that it should be happy." And the Spectator says:
The duty of government in a sane democracy is to protect our freedoms, which include the freedom to be unhappy if we wish. Studies of general contentment are for totalitarian regimes.
This conflict between freedom and happiness is not merely a philosophical one. Research shows it to be a hard empirical fact, in several ways:
- One paper finds that, controlling for other things, "economic freedom is significantly negatively related to life satisfaction."
But here's the question. Is this trade-off between happiness and freedom an ineradicable fact about human nature, or is it an artefact of a particular social structure?
Two things make me suggest that, to some extent, it's the latter.
First, Paolo Verme shows that the relationship between freedom and happiness depends upon our locus of control. If we have an internal locus - if we feel we are in comtrol of our own lives - then freedom does make us happy. If, however, we have an external locus - we think our fate depends upon fortune or upon others - then freedom doesn't make us happy.
This might help explain why older people in post-communist countries have been especially unhappy (pdf). They were brought up (by indoctrination and experience) to have an external locus of control. They thus saw increased freedom after the collapse of communism as a disconcerting threat.
And here's the thing. Hierarchical managerialist capitalism requires that lots of people have an external locus of control - that they do as they're told; the person who tries to take control of their own life will soon be sacked from the call centre or assembly line.And schools subtly indoctrinate people into this mindset. Capitalism thus requires, and produces, many people for whom there is, psychologically, a conflict between happiness and freedom.
Secondly, remember how surveyors ask about happiness. They don't ask: "are you having fun?". Instead they ask several questions (pdf), two of which are: "Overall, how satisfied are you with your life nowadays?" and "Overall, to what extent do you feel the things you do in your life are worthwhile?" I strongly suspect that people who pursue professional or sporting excellence or who fight injustice - to use Norm and Phillip's examples - would give high scores on these questions: Norm and Phillip give no evidence to the contrary.
But how can I reconcile this suspicion with the evidence I've cited for a conflict between freedom and happiness? Simple. There's a conflict when people use freedom to choose what Edward Skidelsky calls "baubles and gadgets" or what MacIntyre calls external goods such as money, but not so much when they choose to pursue "internal goods" such as excellence.But capitalism requires that people pursue the former.
So, here's my theory. There's a conflict between freedom and happiness for capitalist people - consumers who do as they are told at work - but not for (market) socialist people, who are empowered to take control of their own lives.
Institutions shape culture. And capitalist institution give us a culture in which freedom and happiness conflict.