The Greatest Good

We asked people on the street about this. They answered, “A job that you care about, good health, family life, security, and friends 'to get you through hard times.' ” Though no one actually mentioned needing a lot of money, we suspect they didn't consider money irrelevant either. But one interviewee put things in the simplest of terms: “I want to be happy.”

Indeed, a high quality of life is one that makes people happy. That's what Bentham believed, and he wasn't alone among Enlightenment thinkers. Thomas Jefferson famously enshrined “the pursuit of happiness” as a right in the Declaration of Independence, adding that to secure such rights, “governments are instituted among men.”

Jefferson even went so far as to conclude that the “only orthodox object of the institution of government is to secure the greatest degree of happiness possible to the general mass of those associated under it.” Likewise, the American Constitution declared that the new government was established to, among other things, “promote the general welfare” of the people. So Pinchot's ideas were not novel even in his time.

To see whether the economy is accomplishing this first goal — promoting the greatest good, or the happiness of the people — we need to know what makes people happy and how our economic policies either enhance or thwart our pursuit of happiness. This is a subjective matter, of course, but not nearly as subjective as many people think.

There is now a respected “science of happiness,” and interestingly, its findings mirror the teachings of our great religions; it is, indeed, “better to give than to receive,” for example. An entire legion of books on the topic has been written in the past few years, some of them insightful, some of them fluff. None of the books conclude that the economic route to happiness consists of endlessly widening the superhighway of accumulation.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) increasingly takes happiness studies seriously. The OECD (made up of representatives from thirty of the world's richest nations) is looking for a whole new set of indicators on which to judge the progress of member countries. Its new Global Project aims at collecting so-called best practices — social and economic policies that are clearly shown to increase life satisfaction.

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