The Pursuit of Happiness

We believe these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness … that to secure these rights governments are instituted.

— THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE, 1776

By now, we hope you agree that simply increasing the GDP is not necessarily the best goal for the economy. But what should we measure instead? What is the economy for, anyway? Our answer comes from a little-known pamphlet written by Gifford Pinchot, then the first chief of the United States Forest Service. Pinchot was no wild-eyed radical. He was a Republican with progressive views. One day in 1905, Pinchot penned a memo offering his view of the job he'd been hired to do.

His task, Pinchot explained, was to manage the public forests of America to achieve “the greatest good for the greatest number over the longest run.”1 The forests, he thought, should be used to benefit all Americans, rich and poor. They should not be locked away. But they should be managed carefully, to provide all generations to come with lumber, clean water, and recreation.

The greatest good.

For the greatest number.

Over the longest run.

We suggest that this trinity, Pinchot's mandate, should provide the new goals for our economy. Yet even in Pinchot's day, they were not new ideas. Utilitarianism, a movement started in eighteenth-century England by the economist Jeremy Bentham, had long argued that the first two elements in the trinity were the true purposes of an economy.2

But Pinchot worried about posterity. The greatest good for the greatest number might mean using up everything now to make everybody happy in the short run. And that wouldn't be very good for those who came later. So Pinchot added the longest run. But in practice, what do these terms — the greatest good, the greatest number, and the longest run — mean? We think they are synonymous with (1) a high quality of life, (2) social justice or fairness, and (3) sustainability. We'll get to justice and sustainability later in the book. But now, let's consider the following question: If the greatest good means a high quality of life, what are the elements of such a life?

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