Monday, June 14, 2010

Freedom and Happiness

I had a great day at work the other day. After hours of trying to figure out why the software I'd written wasn't working, I finally found the error in my code that was causing the problem. As a software engineer, one of the most rewarding parts of my job is successfully debugging code — finding and fixing my own mistakes. It's strange that part of my happiness requires that I make mistakes, because those same mistakes can cause frustration and delay! It's sometimes hard to understand what makes us happy.

This got me thinking about a friend of mine who moved from beautiful Palo Alto, California to blustery Chicago. I remember asking him why he'd want to leave such a great climate for cold and windy weather, and he told me that he'd become bored of the perfect weather and that he missed the rain and the cold. It struck me as odd that even though my friend would probably prefer nice weather on any given day, he was happiest when he experienced subpar weather some of the time.

The recipe for happiness can be puzzling, and it changes from person to person and from time to time. The inconsistent and unpredictable nature of happiness underscores the importance of giving individuals the freedom to find and bring about their own happiness, and makes me wary of any mandatory government program that is claimed to make life better for all people.

Take Social Security, the social insurance program that is funded by mandatory payroll taxes. Before Social Security was signed into law, President Franklin D. Roosevelt said, "There is no reason why everyone in the United States should not be covered. I see no reason why every child, from the day he is born, shouldn't be a member of the social security system." So FDR couldn't see any reason why people shouldn't have Social Security? Well what about if they don't want to? What if they want to spend their hard-earned money on something else? And who is anyone to say what should or shouldn't be a part of everyone else's life?

I think it's arrogant for anyone, even the President, to presume that any one thing will make life better for everybody. And while financial security can greatly improve a person's quality of life, government-imposed financial security undermines our freedom. As Benjamin Franklin put it, "They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety."


  1. What's the opposite of happiness? Believe it or not, it's not sadness (since that's the other side of the same coin). It's boredom.

  2. I agree that its wrong for a president to believe that everyone will have their lives improved as that is impossible.

    but one of the conditions of being part of a social contract is that one does not get everything they want

    to quote rousseau

    " The citizen consents to all the laws, even to those that are passed against his will, and even to those which punish him when he dares to break any one of them. The constant will of all the members of the state is the general will; it is through it that they are citizens and free."

    Citizens of this country have the power to work together and vote for their political goals.

    FDR didn't pass Social Security in some sort of executive dictatorship order - it was passed via congress. By people who were elected by american citizens. It has had more than enough time to be attacked and yet it continues to be broadned (even under the Reagan administration, who actually accelerated the passage of taxing Social Security benefits). This is because it has quite a broad support across political spectrums (including a large amount of tea party participants who were afraid of money being taken out of Social Security and Medicare for the new health care reform. To be fair, I believe a majority of the group are in favor of privitization of the system).

    There have been plenty of things that have been passed via our democratic process that I am in opposition to - Overseas interventions, war on drugs, subsidies to agriculture, etc. The list is even longer going back before I was alive but I don't know if that counts.

    Perhaps we could have a shift away from universal social security to more specific means-tested programs i.e not everyone over 62 would benefit (which could save money as this would mean less people apply and thus hopefully less taxation) but whenever this happens, the politics all of a sudden become belligerent and sometimes even racialized, of the government shelling out to uneedy and lazy "special interests."

    I wouldn't give up being part of this democratic process (which I believe could surely be improved by having more direct involvement) for more liberty. If I wanted so much liberty, I could move to a failed state/run away like thoreau, where taxation is poorly performed/ non-existant and I could have more liberty than I do in America. and hopefully i am not shot

  3. Paul you should read Richard Layard's fantastic book Happiness: Lessons from a New Science for an in depth economic and social evaluation of the pillars of happiness that influence our lives and our overall satisfaction.

  4. @Oysteinsevag thanks for the book suggestion, sounds like it's right up my alley - I'll definitely read it. (And sorry for replying 2 years late!)