Do Larger Governments Lead to More Happiness?

By: José Azel - Mar 6, 2016, 9:46 pm
Los estadounidenses hemos sacrificado libertades en aras de seguridad colectiva. Pero, ¿cuándo se llega demasiado lejos? (LaCatholicWorker)
Any undertakings we ask of government requires that we surrender a measure of freedom. (LaCatholicWorker)

EspañolPericles’s speech exhorting Athenians during the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC) is perhaps the most celebrated oration in defense of democratic values ever given.

The Greek statesman defends Athenian patriotism, but also the universal values of tolerance, diversity, free trade, and the rule of law. He ends by reminding his countrymen that “happiness depends on being free, and freedom depends on being courageous.”

I have always been moved by this beautiful phrase, and I want to explore its wisdom in the more plebeian context of government spending.

My first point is seldom appreciated: any undertakings we ask of government requires that we surrender a measure of freedom. When we consent to being governed, we grant government the monopolistic use of coercive power in society. We give government the exclusive right to force us to behave in certain ways, or else…

When we give up the freedom to drive at 100 miles per hour in order to improve road safety, we have given up the freedom to drive as we please. By choosing safety over freedom, we have judiciously surrendered a degree of freedom. It is this logic of exchanging freedom for some valued government service that anchors our Western concept of legitimate government.

By definition, more government implies less freedom. And yet we misunderstand this logic and act as if more government services (i.e., a larger government) are always an enhancement to our lives. This is equivalent to stating that our lives are enriched by less freedom.

One measure of the size of government is government spending. Currently, national governments spend, on average, a yearly total of US$2,376 per citizen. In 2005, total government spending per person in the United States totaled US$14,847. By 2012, it had increased 31.2 percent to US$19,483, a significant reduction of freedom.

I have chosen these years to correspond with the available measure of happiness introduced below. By the logic that more government services equal happier lives, what did we get for this surrendering of freedom?

The World Happiness Report is a sophisticated new measure of how people around the world rate their overall satisfaction with life. The report is a comprehensive instrument that seeks to measure happiness by including variables such as GDP per capita, healthy life expectancy, social support, freedom from corruption, generosity, and the freedom to make life choices.

When the World Happiness Report was first published, with data collected around 2005-07, the United States ranked as the 11th happiest country in the world. The latest report uses data collected around 2012-14 and shows the U.S. dropping to 15th place.

The United States was among the biggest losers of happiness, far more than would be expected from income losses due to macroeconomic changes. One of the reasons for the decline in happiness was a perceived loss of “freedom to make life choices.”

[adrotate group=”7″]Clearly these data are not sufficient to offer a correlation, much less causation, between the growth of government and happiness. The best counter data are the Scandinavian countries, which report both high levels of happiness and government spending.

But the data does show that, despite surrendering a significant amount of freedom by allowing government spending to increase 31.2 percent in this period, our perceived happiness did not increase, but decreased. Perhaps the U.S. is just a case of bad management. The fact remains that we did no get much for our sacrifice of purse and freedom.

Cuban journalist Carlos Alberto Montaner offers an explanation:

Decision making is what defines us as human. When a government decides for us, and imposes a way of life, patterns of conduct, and values, it robs us of happiness. This is what makes countries like Cuba unlivable.”

The lesson is that, in this election cycle, we should be skeptical of any offers to increase government spending under the guise of augmenting our well-being. Instead, we should have the courage to pursue our own happiness.

There is certainly a case for a government that protects our life, liberty, and property as foreseen by the Founding Fathers. There is no case for surrendering more freedom to buy a larger government.

As it turns out, larger government and happiness may be mutually exclusive because happiness depends on being free.

José Azel José Azel

Senior scholar at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami. Azel was a political exile from Cuba at the age of 13 in 1961 and is the author of Mañana in Cuba. Follow @JoseAzel.