Friday, 18 December 2015

Capitalism and the economics of happiness

It is difficult for humans to be happy on an empty stomach or without shelter. Yet, in most surveys about the sources of happiness, people usually rate higher other determinants of happiness such as family and health. So, it is wealth-creation (the main objective of capitalism) the only road to happiness? The answer is obviously no!

Different people pursue happiness in different ways, namely through meditation, friendship and many other ways that do not depend on the availability of the material comforts of life (see Layard, 2005). Yet, it is also unquestionable that the abundance of material comforts may facilitate or prevent the attainment of happiness.

One important factor to notice is that the pursuance of material wealth is often detrimental to the other factors contributing to human happiness, namely family life, community and friends. However, most people will pursue wealth regardless of the economic system.

Therefore, as it is often the case, the drive for wealth should not be confused with the results of an economic system (capitalist or other). For instance, imagine that humans were divided in two groups – satisfiers and maximizers. It will take a lot of reward to convince the first to emigrate and leave behind family and friends. So, in capitalism only its higher rewards can be blamed for enticing the urge to move on those individuals.

Nevertheless, the opposite is equally true. One should not ignore the key role played by wealth in family life. In particular the Portuguese adage that “in a hungry family all fight and none is right”.

Indeed, the impact on family life and health through industrialization and urbanization was initially very disrupting and resented in the early days of capitalism, which led many social-minded philosophers to blame capitalism for that.

Likewise, long working hours, women employment and job insecurity often contribute to some of the greatest causes of unhappiness, namely separation/divorce and unemployment. Yet, this cannot be fairly attributed to capitalism, especially when we compare its working conditions with those under slavery, serfdom or communism. Moreover, it gave women a degree of freedom never enjoyed in the past both in terms of self-supporting income and domestic help.

Of course, greater freedom inevitably comes with a greater sense of insecurity. In particular, the freedom of contracting could not provide a job-for-life and the sense of security enjoyed by the serfs tied to the land. But, to some extent the state ended up replacing the landlords in providing unemployment insurance and other welfare programs. Moreover, it freed men from compulsory labor and military service which were a major cause of death.

Finally, at the cultural and moral levels, capitalism is often criticized as responsible for the loss of a sense of belonging and for growing resentment and envy, all factors that diminish happiness. Again, the greater freedom, wealth and opportunities created by capitalism in turn favored individualism, consumerism and egalitarianism, which have happiness-reducing consequences. However, they also had significant happiness-increasing consequences in terms of liberty, abundance and social mobility, which, on balance are more important.

In conclusion, like all new economic systems, capitalism brought its own share of disruption to traditional values and certainties which wears down some sources of happiness. Although its facilitation of many other sources of happiness largely outweighs such erosion, there are some utopias that it cannot and should not promote, such as wealth equality. While equality of opportunity is indispensable for economic efficiency, trying to impose an equality of results would require eliminating individual risk and rewards and entrepreneurship which are fundamental for capitalism.

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