Does capitalism make us happy?

‘. . . Somewhere between Plato and Prozac, happiness stopped being a lofty achievement and became an entitlement.’
Richard Schoch, The Secret of Happiness: Three thousand years of searching for the good life.

Has 200 years of liberal capitalism made us any happier?

That’s the question being asked in the 2007 Ross Parish Essay competition, open to people under 30. The deadline for entries is 17 September, with prize money and publication in Policy for the first and second prize winners.

Judging is so impartial that the joint winners a couple of years ago were members of the Greens and Opus Dei respectively.

10 thoughts on “Does capitalism make us happy?

  1. Why is happiness considered an aim? Why look to an economic system of efficient resource allocation for happiness?



    That opening line about finding happiness “somewhere between Plato and Prozac” reminds me of my favourite lyric of all times, by none other than Billy Bragg:

    Between Marx and Marzipan in the dictionary there was Mary.

    Now, just how do you come up with a line like that?
    Anyhow, just thought I’d share the love…


  3. Brendan – The quotation will perhaps prompt people to consider to what extent happiness should be an aim. While personally I find the Richard Layardesque argument for putting happiness above all else to be philosophically shallow, happiness is hardly irrelevant to our evaluation of social, political and economic institutions.


  4. Happiness is an element of how we decide to alocate our resources and our time, it has little to do with the transaction itself. Capitalism is merely a system of resource allocation based on voluntary transactions. The motivation behind the transactions has little to do with it.

    The fact of the matter is that capitalism allows people to make more decisions that may lead to happiness compared to other ways of organising an economy, it won’t actually generate the happpiness itself. It will also give people more freedom top make decisions that may lead to unhappiness, which is what guys like Clive Hamilton like to focus on.

    Unfortunately other ways of organising the economy may eliminate the ability to make decisions that lead to unhappiness, they do lead to feelings of resignation and despair because of lack of choice and freedom, which is what most of the people who lived under socialism have experienced.

    Freedom means the right to make bad decisions as well as good, whether those make you happy or not are your responsibility.


  5. Have we really had 200 years of liberal capitalism? And can I be more or less happy than I was 200 years ago?


  6. The Economist this weks reports on the Gallup World Poll pointing giving an overview of “happiness” in countries. Finland topped the scale. In the next rank (6.5-7.5 out of ten) were mainly western EU and Anglo countries, but also some Latin American countries and Saudi Arabia).

    The Xmas 2006 issue of The Economist had a number of articles on Economics and Happiness, with the leader here, and pointed out that in some societies happiness is relative to the difference in wealth from your neighbor (e.g. you might have a mercedes, but you are unhappy if your neighbor has a ferrari), or, as they said in a take-out “Doing well is not enough: we also want to do better than our peers. This status anxiety runs deep”.

    It’s also worth looking at the level of satisfaction in Cuba, which for health, education and child development is quite high, even compared to various famous capitalist countries according to Gallup (see the 3 page summary here. Mind you, they are dissatisfied with “freedoms”. (Although, as a parent, I’d view the lower infant mortality and much greater environmental sustainability (long-term chances for grandkids/great-grandkids) of Cuba cf the US as a reasonable tradeoff for various freedoms. Freedom from ignorance and illhealth are pretty fundamental, and the Howard/Ruddock line of legal freedoms from arbitrary detention are less important than the freedom not to be blown up by terrorists follow a similar line).

    The best conditions for happiness seem to be freedom from anxiety over health, education, and a roof over your head, together with discouragement of envy. The economic system seems to have less to do with it than the quality of services a citizen can rely on.


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