Conservative pundit Arthur C. Brooks has been discussing his book Gross National Happiness in a number of venues, including the NYT Freakonomics blog. Having criticized the progressive Robert H. Frank for using such data to support egalitarianism, I’ll now question Brooks’s subjectivism (which has led him in exactly the opposite direction as Frank on the inequality question).
Brooks is happy to report that his political allies are “winning the happiness game hands down.” He gives several hypotheses for conservative joy; stronger religiosity, more time with family, a preference for “simplicity” over “complexity,” and less likelihood to see oneself as a victim. Brooks occasionally concedes Mill’s argument that it is “better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied.” But he appears most amenable to the view that liberals are likely to be whiny, complaining, resentful people, while conservatives resolutely consider themselves in control of their fate and satisfied with their lives.
Brooks’s research raises a number of interesting policy questions. First of all, what’s his root concern–happiness or virtue? We might map the classic tension between freedom and virtue to the present case: is it good action or the subjective feeling (Brooks alleges) it creates the desideratum here? If the latter, why not just provide people with soma? If the former, it’s a bit odd to introduce the “happiness evidence” as a reason for being, say, conservative, or good. Who’s Brooks’s audience? Exhausted hedonists just on the brink of giving up their Don Juan days to find more lasting pleasure at anti-tax rallies?