Happy conservatives and gloomy liberals

This post by Tyler Cowen recounts a debate in which he and another conservative argued that Americans are happy, versus two liberals who argued that Americans are not so happy, which makes me wonder how this happened. It reminds me of

. . . the debates between Democrats and Republicans in Reagan/Carter/Mondale era. Reagan could certainly be serious about the problems facing the country, but he was basically pro-happiness and anti-gloom-and-doom.

It hasn’t always been this way. In the 1920s, 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60s, it was the Democrats who were the happy party, favoring prohibition repeal, loose money, federal spending, and economic growth, whereas the Republicans were the grouches. Look at the Barry Goldwater campaign, for example, for some serious grouching. Why have the terms of debate changed? An explanation that makes sense is that the U.S. has lower tax rates than Europe, so the high-tax, low-tax battle gets transferred to the question, “Are people happier in the U.S. than in Europe?” But we’ve only been able to have this battle since 1970 or so; before that, Europe was still much poorer than the U.S.

So, in a way it all makes sense, but there’s still something funny about it to me, since it really seems to be a debate about what tax rates in the U.S. should be.

For some historical perspective, here’s a quote from G. K. Chesterton’s book on George Bernard Shaw:

I [Chesterton] know it is all very strange. From the height of eight hundred years ago, or of eight hundred years hence, our age must look incredibly odd. We call the twelfth century ascetic. We call our own time hedonist and full of praise and pleasure. But in the ascetic age the love of life was evident and enormous, so that it had to be restrained. In a hedonist age pleasure has always sunk low, so that it had to be encouraged. How high the sea of human happiness rose in the Middle Ages, we now only know by the colossal walls that that they built to keep it in bounds. How low human happiness sank in the twentieth century our children will only know by these extraordinary modern books, which tell people that it is a duty to be cheerful and that life is not so bad after all. Humanity never produces optimists till it has ceased to produce happy men. It is strange to be obliged to impose a holiday like a fast, and to drive men to a banquet with spears. But this shall be written of our time: that when the spirit who denies beseiged the last citadel, blaspheming life itself, there were some, there was one especially, whose voice was heard and whose spear was never broken.

Chesterton was a Catholic conservative of the early 1900s, Shaw was a socialist, and both were famous for expressing their ideas in paradox.

Shaw, the leftist, associated progress with material happiness, while Chesterton, the rightist, said things were better in the Middle Ages. Nowadays, the debates usually go in the other directions, with people on the left being less positive about material progress and people on the right saying that things are great now and are getting better.

P.S. Don’t forget that Sweden is not Finland.

P.P.S. Further miscellaneous thoughts on happiness.

5 thoughts on “Happy conservatives and gloomy liberals

  1. They are economic conservatives in the U.S. sense of supporting lower taxes and lower social spending. For the purpose of this discussion I wasn't really trying to place them in other dimensions (hence the comparison to the far-from-liberatarian Chesterton).

  2. "They are economic conservatives in the U.S. sense of supporting lower taxes and lower social spending."

    True, but wouldn't issues other than the strictly economic ones be relevant in a discussion about happiness (which I have not attended). Something along the lines of "Having to endure fewer regulations than Europeans makes us happier than them", for example?

  3. the U.S. has higher tax rates than Europe

    I can't seem to find evidence that this is true. I always thought that the US had lower tax rates than Europe.

  4. Lemmus,

    I don't think you have to be libertarian to want fewer regulations. Opposing regulations on business is an economic-conservative standby for over a century.


    Sorry–that was a typo. Fixed.

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