Magazine article The American Conservative

Rule of Happiness

Magazine article The American Conservative

Rule of Happiness

Article excerpt

What is "the pursuit of happiness?" When Thomas Jefferson added the phrase to the Declaration of Independence, he posed a mystery to later generations. Egalitarians have seized upon his words to justify wealth redistribution--by omitting the more conventional right to property from the Declaration's triad, they reason, Jefferson must have been underscoring an alternative.

There are likelier explanations. For one, the Declaration's author fought hard for the abolition of entail in Virginia, and entailed estates are precisely property that cannot be alienated. An unalienable right to property is not the same thing as unalienable property itself, but why risk a misunderstanding?

That doesn't clear up what the pursuit of happiness is, however. Whether he intended to do so or not, Jefferson in fact hit on a characteristic quality of self-government: it makes people happier, at least according to recent studies from Switzerland.

Writing in The Spectator last November, British journalist James Bartholomew called attention to the work of Bruno Frey at the University of Zurich. Frey found that the degree of local democracy in Swiss cantons correlated with the happiness of each canton's citizens. "The canton of Basel Land, which is near but does not include the city of Basel, had the highest democracy rating of 5.69 out of six," Bartholomew wrote. "It was notably happier than the Canton of Geneva, which has the lowest democracy rating of only 1.75." (Geneva, of course, home to the United Nations, is in some respects as much a part of the "international community" as it is of Switzerland.)

Frey's work controlled for age, income, and other variables, and while unemployment was the factor with the biggest impact on happiness, democracy had as measurable a positive effect as moving up one income bracket--and the effect seemed to apply to everyone, men and women, young and old, of all classes. …

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