Marta Mossburg: Happiness is no metric for a country's success

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Marta Mossburg

French President Nicolas Sarkozy wants his country and every other country to drop financial outputs as the exclusive measure of success and start using citizens' well-being instead.

This could be dismissed as a crazy idea spawned by a love-struck middle-aged man who drank too much Bordeaux one night while listening to his supermodel/pop-star wife strum love ballads in their palace. Or maybe it is an idea from the leader of country whose GDP depends on the Eiffel Tower and is desperately searching to become relevant again.

But economists are promoting this ruse. And so is Bhutan.

Bhutan is the tiny country wedged between China and India that enforces a dress code and restricts outsiders. Illiteracy is high and TV arrived 10 years ago.

There is no freedom of the press. Its per capita gross national income is $1,700, according to the World Bank. These are not positive statistics to most people.

But Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel Prize-winning economist who chaired the International Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress (established by Sarkozy), references Bhutan favorably in a column in the Financial Times earlier this week. "Even before we convened, Bhutan was creating a measure of GNH, or gross national happiness. ... " Given Bhutan's background, it's like praising the country for keeping its people ignorant and poor.

This is the latest example of granting moral equivalency to countries that don't deserve it. Forget the fact that the country is backward.

His utopian vision reminds one of the naivete of Graham Greene's American couple in "The Comedians" who thought they could save a chaotic, destitute Haiti by turning countrymen into vegetarians. Will the world suddenly become a kinder, gentler place, the environment cleaner and people happier if each country starts measuring well-being instead of purely financial outputs?

Stiglitz thinks so: "What we measure affects what we do. If we have the wrong metrics we will strive for the wrong things," he wrote.

The problem with that mode of thinking is that it assumes an all-knowing sense of what makes people happy. More importantly, this takes for granted that happiness should be the ultimate goal in life and the driving force behind government should be maximizing happiness for citizens.

History teaches us that governments are not and never can be omnipotent. Those who attempt to be will fail, often horribly and at great personal and financial cost to their citizens and future generations.

And believing that every nation will agree with one set of metrics to measure GNH is folly. Cultures build norms over time that turn into values and habits.

Let's take the quantity of leisure time, one of the items Sarkozy proposes to measure. In France, home of the 35-hour work week and Augusts off, leisure time is highly regarded, often more highly than making money or achieving personal success.

In the U.S. that is not the case for many people, meaning two weeks off in the U.S. would make people just as happy as the French, who enjoy six weeks away from work. If each country created its own set of rules, how could countries compare themselves against one another? The tests would be meaningless, with each country claiming it scored highest according to its own criteria.

The bigger question is why countries should put happiness above all else. As Joshua Wolf Shenk wrote movingly in "Lincoln's Melancholy," the 16th president suffered from great bouts of depression.

"He learned how to articulate his suffering, find succor, endure, and adapt. ... As president, Lincoln urged his countrymen to accept their blessing and their burden, to see that their suffering had meaning, and to join him on a journey toward a more perfect union." Would a happy president have been able to preserve the Union and build a path to the end of slavery?

Examples abound of people throughout history who achieved great things not in spite of their suffering, but because of it. This is not to argue that imprisoning political opponents or executing innocents is a good thing.

But would a happy nation, one coddled by two mandated weeks at a spa, or forced to work fewer hours, have the will to defend itself; invent a replacement to oil; write the next masterpiece; or uncover massive government fraud?

And could a government that focuses on pacifying its people also be one that vigorously defends their right to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?" I doubt it. That is depressing.

Examiner Columnist Marta Mossburg is a senior fellow with the Maryland Public Policy Institute and lives in Baltimore.

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