We swim in a media soup of politics. It is stressful. It hammers with an incessant thud of foreboding. Like most, my life has had deep downs and some inspiring ups, but right now I find it hard to stay focused on everything I should be personally grateful for, when the noise of our culture is so disturbing. Honestly, I have been trying to tune out the politics of self-destruction that has poisoned the minds of so many. It is harder still to listen to the weak, worn-out responses of civic leaders to those hell-bent on turning our society into a survival-of-the-fittest, “Hunger Games” nightmare.
What we need is some smart innovation about how best to create a 21st-century society where everyone has a genuine chance for a decent life. Who could oppose such a goal? Strangely, it seems many do. Yet this is exactly the goal of our founders. It is the foundation of what we call the Enlightenment, which was an explosion of new thinking about the purpose of society
Before the Enlightenment, there was only savagery. For thousands of years it took the form of tribalism, where the strongest tribes killed, enslaved, and raped weaker ones. During these dreadful millennia, everyone had to carry weapons to defend themselves from everyone else.
Later, civilization brought us commerce and the concentration of vast wealth among a self-appointed ruling class, who rigged the legal system and taxed the peasants to ensure their families would always have all the wealth, all the power, and control of the armies and navies. They even invented a religious doctrine called the “Divine Right of Kings,” that claimed that being born into an aristocracy was proof that God had chosen you to rule over everyone else. This was the nature of society until the past 200 years. For most people life was hard, hopeless, and short.
In the 1700s, s a new breed of philosophers promoted the intrinsic dignity of every man. Eventually, this grew to include every human being—every man, every woman, every race. Once people were “enlightened” to believe in universal human dignity, the concept of a free and equal society became the aspiration of all moral people. It is one of the most powerful ideas ever ignited. It defines a core value. A value that changes everything.
The value is simple. Every person has the inherent right to pursue their happiness. It doesn’t mean we can grant happiness, or insure it for everyone. But, together, we can do a lot to give every citizen a genuine chance at self-determination. The principle of this value was expressed by the influential philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who said the best society was the one that creates the most opportunity for happiness for the most people. This idea inspired Thomas Jefferson’s famous declaration that we should be free to pursue happiness.
Well, right from the beginning, there was a big divide over what brings happiness. The battle is over a fundamental value. One side says happiness comes from pursuing self-interest. Selfishness with a dash of charity is the fundamental idea. This concept is tied directly to the belief that your level of material wealth determines your level of happiness.
As an idea, the selfish route to happiness has a long history connecting tribal warfare to the aristocracies of Europe, that seemed to show that whoever has the most power, money and security has the most happiness. The thinking goes that since power and wealth are always judged by competitive measures (that is, “What is my power compared to yours?” or “Who has the most money also has the most food, medicine, land, slaves, etc.”), the game of life is simple: just win. This idea that happiness comes from competitively driving your self-interest to dominate always leads to people who gain power to limit the ways others can gain it. It’s like a football team who, once they get ahead, suddenly changes the rules so that the team behind only gets to play four players.
This philosophy, based on material wealth accumulated through self-interested competition, has always had loud, table-pounding political defenders. This group would not ratify our Constitution if it outlawed slavery. This group fought against public canals, public roads, and public schools. This group fought against child labor and minimum wage laws and social security. This group fought against environmental protection, safety regulations, and limiting advertising of cigarettes. This group opposed women and African-Americans getting to vote or own property. They oppose equal pay, maternity leave, and early childhood education. They are very consistent. This group has always used the obvious deception that the non-rich should not want to limit the power of the rich, because someday you could be rich, and you will want all this asymmetrical power we enjoy.
This group is powerful because, to some extent, their philosophy of self does work! It turns out that free market competition does increase ingenuity and innovation, and does improve the material quality of the lives of billions of people. And that’s no small thing. The problem? It doesn’t account for all of the most important values—human value. A free market has no intrinsic morality. A free market rewards cheaters, pollution, poisoners and exploiters, because the short-term gains arising from irresponsible self-interest overpowers “enlightened” self-interest from being moral. A free market operating without common ethical values is bound to increase suffering of the innocent.
The most basic rule of ethics is to not do anything that would cause avoidable suffering of innocent people. Unavoidable suffering is caused by things like hurricanes and disease. Avoidable suffering is caused by selling cigarettes or bogus investments, or pollution, or…a zillion other legal but immoral things. Even laws and regulations have little impact, because the successful violators corrupt politicians, so that laws and regulations are changed to promote and even reward irresponsibility and exploitation.
As it turns out, pursuing happiness through self-interest is stupid. It doesn’t work. Over the past ten years, scientists have accumulated mountains of research confirming that happiness occurs at the intersection of contentment and optimism, and that these higher feelings directly arise from empathy, caring, compassion, and personal growth. It has nothing to do with selfishness.
In fact, after our basic needs are met, happiness has little to do with material things at all. The research is clear that the most chronically unhappy people are those who are the most competitive and materialistic. Research points out that multi-millionaires with materialistic values are less happy than people living in strong family systems, who are only living 20% above the level of daily sustenance. (In India, these people make only $4000 per year!)
I am not pointing this out to say that pursuing money at the cost of love and compassion is a bad idea. Someone far more important than me pointed that out 2,000 years ago. Rather, I am asking “What are we trying to achieve?” What I’m asking is why would any person support leaders who want to recreate America into a ruthlessly materialistic society, one that only rewards financial success and the arbitrary good luck of being born into a loving, stable family? How can so many of us seem to think that a society that is specially engineered to favor the favored, while increasing avoidable suffering to the unfavored, is the very best we can do?
I just don’t get it. I don’t understand how about half of Americans seem to think a survival-of-the-fittest society is the best fruit of political freedom. We are wasting precious time, and poisoning our future. New polls are showing more Americans than at any time in history are considering emigrating to other countries, because there are greater opportunities to pursue true happiness.
Have we lost our ever-loving minds?
The fact is, the best path to our best future has not been presented. While today’s conservatives are insane, the liberal politicians are stuck in a paternalistic merry-go-round—that is, well-meaning but poorly designed solutions. Our government is too often bloated, uninspired, and corrupt. What’s needed is government re-imagined to take advantage of the best of human nature, instead of rewarding the worst of our animal instincts.
In today’s environment, I don’t hold much hope that such innovation will come without much pain. My mission is to help you avoid as much of that pain as possible, by grabbing the steering wheel of your own life.
(I am teaching a career class at UC San Diego helping scores of people discover their unique path to happiness… I will keep you posted.)