Saturday, February 14, 2009

Do we have to choose between lifestyles and liberty?

As noted in my last post, Dan Haybron suggests that our prospects for flourishing may depend importantly on living in the right kind of setting, with the right sorts of people (“The Pursuit of Unhappiness”, p 267) . Haybron is concerned that liberal optimism (the presumption that well-being increases when people have more options to choose from) can result in damage to community attributes that are important to the happiness of many individuals.

One of the examples that Haybron gives has to do with a proposal for intervention in the education of Amish children to give them a wider range of options to choose from in their adult lives. Haybron makes the point that “the Amish are not crazy to fear that such a policy would threaten one of their most cherished values, that of community” (p 266). It seems to me that it would be possible for a classical liberal to take a position on either side of such an issue, depending on the facts of the situation e.g. whether a strong case can be made that the rights of the children are being breached and whether it is likely that government intervention on their behalf would actually improve their chances of having a happy life.

Haybron’s example of the possible harm that could be done to community well-being through economic development of an island is worth considering at greater length. The residents of the island are assumed initially to have relatively low incomes but to enjoy, on average, a high level of happiness, due to strong community bonds and a culture that emphasizes the enjoyment of life. It is possible for any one resident to obtain a substantial net benefit by selling land to developers who wish to develop the tourist potential of the island, since the incremental effect of any one sale on the community lifestyle is minimal. But, taken together, many such sales may have an overall negative effect on the average happiness of the island’s long term residents. Should the development be stopped?

A different example, concerning the views of Justus Moser about the impact of global commerce on local culture, might help to clarify the issues involved. Jerry Muller tells us that Moser was a leading citizen in Osnabruck, a self-governing region in western Germany, in the 18th century (“The Mind and the Market” pp 84-103). Moser, like some modern-day opponents of globalisation, was concerned about the effects of trade on local lifestyles and culture. He condemned the growing taste for new, imported commodities, such as coffee, tea and sugar, especially among the lower ranks. He viewed shopkeepers as the local agents of the new international economy who robbed artisans of their customers and their livelihood. He reserved his greatest condemnation, however, for foreign peddlers who were selling small quantities of imported goods to peasants who were largely outside the market economy. According to Moser, these activities were causing the rural population to be “stimulated, tempted, led astray and deceived”. He argued that the public needed to be protected from the temptation of buying products that they didn’t need like leather gloves, wool stockings, metal buttons, mirrors, cotton caps, knives and needles. Women also needed to be protected from local markets where they would chat and waste money on snacks and pleasantries, while ignoring their household duties. Should trade restrictions be imposed to protect local lifestyles and culture?

What is the main difference between these two examples? It seems to me that it is possible that there could be close to a unanimous view among the long-term residents of Haybron’s island in favour of restricting certain kinds of economic development, but it is unlikely that Justus Moser, and the modern day opponents of globalisation, could persuade many of their fellow citizens that they need to be protected from the temptations of international commerce.

Can the legitimate interests of communities in preserving lifestyles of their members be met without making unacceptable encroachments on liberty? Dan Haybron evidently does not think so. At the end of his book he seems to be suggesting that we have to choose between paternalistic interventions that might, or might not, promote happiness and the individual’s right to pursue unhappiness (like the Savage in Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World”).

I think that view is too pessimistic. Robert Nozick’s concept of a framework for utopia (briefly discussed here) seems to me to provide a good way to begin thinking more optimistically about these issues. People who want the opportunities that economic growth provides should be able to choose to live in communities that provide those opportunities, while those who value a more simple lifestyle should be able to choose to live in communities in which economic development is restricted in various ways. Do you think that idea is too utopian?

I would like to draw attention to Dan Haybron's comment below.


dan haybron said...

Thanks very much for your insightful and interesting comments on my book! I don't have too many quarrels with your reading of the book, though I think the ending could be construed more pessimistically than I intended.

I do think there's a real tension between liberty and happiness in certain realms, and wanted to emphasize the need for caution in thinking about the policy implications of happiness research. We should resist an overly intrusive nanny state, not because it couldn't be effective, but because we are entitled not to be treated like children.

That said, I'm fairly optimistic about the potential for policies to legitimately promote happiness, at least to a point. (Though I also worry that, eg, there might be no permissible way to restore functioning communities in countries like the US, where real communities generally do not, as far as I can tell, exist anymore. That worries me, since it essentially hamstrings the chief source of happiness.)

Places like the island can, I think, be handled more sensibly than it was, eg with better zoning laws. Indeed, I'm rather sympathetic to much of what Bhutan seems to have done, even if some of it may be too paternalistic, or would be in more developed nations. It's an interesting case.

So while I'm a bit pessimistic about certain things, I'm generally optimistic that we can do a lot better than we've been doing. Thanks again for your terrific discussion of my book.


Electric Blender said...
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