Saturday, January 9, 2010

'In Pursuit of Happiness and Good Government'

This review appeared in the New York City Tribune on December 28, 1988.

Charles Murray’s Latest Common Sense Answers To Burning Questions

In Pursuit of Happiness and Good Government, by Charles Murray, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988; 341 pp., $19.95.

Question: If money can’t buy happiness, what can? Answer: Read Charles Murray’s new book, In Pursuit. It may not provide the definitive answers to this question, but it certainly focuses the argument.

This foll\ow-up to Murray’s successful critique of Great Society social policy, Losing Ground, demonstrates that Charles Murray is probably the most lucid and readable writer on questions of social policy since Jane Jacobs. Eschewing a florid or dense academic style, In Pursuit flows from one topic to another with fluencv and ease, tying together strands of seemingly unrelated arguments to create a cohesive and comprehensible whole. Unlike so many “scholarly” texts on this and related topics, Murray makes accessible to any interested reader the issue of the role government may have in enabling individuals to pursue happiness. And since the questions he addresses are those that have badgered us since the beginning of speech -- What is the ultimate meaning of life? What is virtuous behavior? Where do we go from here? -- it seems few readers could be uninterested.

Like Jacobs, who in her books The Death and Life of Great American Cities and Cities and the Wealth of Nations wrote about urban planning and economics in such a common-sense fashion that most readers were moved to ask, Why didn’t I think of that?. Murray applies an interdisciplinary approach to problems of poverty and prosperity, dignity and dependence, and the proper role of government in formulating social policy. He draws on the best works of political philosophy (Aristotle to John Rawls), psychology (Maslow and Csikszentmihalyi). history (Macaulay to Himmelfarb), sociology (James Q. Wilson and Nathan Glazer) and economics (Adam Smith to Milton Friedman).

Although so much of what he has to say seems self-evident, the fact is that no one has said it up to now. It took the special effort of Charles Murray, who is unafraid of the demons of received wisdom and conventionality, to break down the barriers between these disciplines and to point out that simply giving money (or food stamps, or housing vouchers) to poor people will not break the cycle of poverty. Nor can it make people happy. Money is just one of a number of “enabling conditions” that allow people to put-sue happiness in their own fashions. The proper role of government, Murray argues, is to build the base for these conditions and then stand out of the way.

Murray draws on the work of psychologist Abraham Maslow for his categories of “enabling conditions for the pursuit of happiness which is to say, if all of them were met, it is difficult to see how a person could claim that he was prevented by external conditions from pursuing happiness.” These conditions are: material resources or physiological needs (food, water, shelter, sex), safety (predictability, order, protection from physical harm), intimacy (friendship, relations with spouse or children). self-respect or self esteem, and self-actualization or, in Murray’s terms, “enjoyment.”

In Murray’s argument, government is more likely to stand in the way after these enabling conditions are laid down, impeding the pursuit of happiness rather than facilitating it. The basic difficulty is that we deal with social problems in a fashion that either leads to no solution or to making the problem worse. He cites sociologist Peter Rossi, who has formulated the Iron Law of Evaluation and the Stainless Steel Law, which say, respectively, “The expected value of any net impact assessment of any large scale social program is zero,” and “The better designed the impact assessment of a social program, the more likely is the resulting estimate of net impact to be zero.” In other words, social planners are like dogs chasing their tails. They run and run and bark and bark, but they don’t get anywhere and they don’t catch anything.

Drawing examples from the real world -- the 55-mph speed limit and the task of attracting good teachers to public schools, for instance -- Murray demonstrates that conventional ways of thinking are wholly inadequate for the issues we confront. New questions must be asked, he says, questions that do not necessarily have quantifiable answers. Much of what comprises “happiness” and the “pursuit of happiness” cannot be expressed in terms of dollars, gallons, or percentiles. The metaphor for their work used by social planners should be changed from engineering to healing. As a result, Murray says, ‘the world would not be perfect; it would just be better.”

The essence of Murray’s message is that individuals alone can best determine their own destiny, can best decide how they shall pursue happiness. He emphasizes, however, that this message cannot easily be categorized as “conservative” or “liberal” or ‘libertarian.” Adherents to these political philosophies may read into Murray what they will, and sometimes, citing him, will end up proposing just what they have proposed for the past 30 years. The exciting thing is, though, that enough people -- politicians, social planners, economists, sociologists -- might read this book and awaken to the fact that they have been asking the wrong questions and that the future demands new questions, new answers and new thinking. New thinking -- could Charles Murray have written a prospectus for perestroika for U.S. social programs?

Richard Sincere is a research associate at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

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