Originally published: 1988
272 pages
Chapter 31

IN PURSUIT: OF HAPPINESS AND GOOD GOVERNMENT


Charles Murray

For human beings happiness is an inherently elusive concept. To complicate that fact, we are sometimes prevented from seeking our own definition and level of bliss by the institutions of government we have created. Leave it to politicians to confuse both the meaning and measure of something as simple as happiness. The authors of the Declaration of Independence laid it out so ingenuously-that we are entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness But we are not entitled to happiness itself-for a fairly obvious reason: happiness means something different to almost every one of us. It is thus up to each of us to create our own happiness, and not to expect such from someone else, much less everyone else in the form of government intrusion into our lives.
     When Thomas Jefferson wrote his initial draft of the Declaration of Independence he did not use the phrase "pursuit of happiness" when defining mankind's inalienable rights. He talked about property, along with life and liberty. Jefferson and his revolutionary editors broadened his scope from the concrete "property" to the more ephemeral "happiness." And to an extent we've been arguing about the consequences of that change ever since.
     Charles Murray aims to sort out some of these complications. He begins by asking what the goal of government should be. His conclusion, as evidenced by his book's title, is that government should help facilitate happiness by being "good." His next inquiry is to question if

381 

"good government" is an oxymoron or if there is something in relation to governing that we can do better than we have been doing so far. Troubles arise when we realize that the quality of government is much in the eye of the beholder, as most things are. Murray further postulates that one's view of human nature is also inextricably intertwined with one's concept of what government should be and do.
     Murray contends that we have lost some control of our lives as the national government has inserted itself into matters that are more cogently understood from a local point of view-or are seen as not any of government's business at all. He asserts that Tocqueville was right when he looked at local government in the early 1800s:

               If you take power and independence from a municipality, you may have
               docile subjects but you will not have citizens.

     Here is an explanation of why the percentage of people who vote continues to drop, and why there is more public sentiment of powerlessness in the face of government, and distrust and disillusion at its operation. Murray recalls that Jefferson and his contemporaries understood the interrelationships all people have, that they complement one another in community more than they compete. We naturally achieve that comity in both our private and our public lives. Murray seeks to rekindle the sentiments of interrelatedness even as he labors to determine how to reign in government.
     Does this suggest that the local political/social entity is more capable of self-governance than are those at higher levels? For Murray, and many others, that inference is mostly correct. The recognition is that the agglomeration of power and administration on a grander scale and with increasing power over local considerations (and the idea that one-size-fits-all government actually works) is a less valid notion. But, with little room for debate in Murray's view, it is clear in spite of the real efficacy of local governance that we are drifting if not careening toward a scenario of extreme centralization.
     Modern media helps foster this trend toward concentrated government. The press, for example, often takes what is an idiosyncratic problem that is emotionally appealing and visually simple, and tries to make it the rule; then it offers a fix (in a thirty second sound-bite or three paragraph editorial) that is equally simplistic but inappropriate, unhelpful, or even incorrect much of the time. Each media outlet, national or local, seeks to claim it was the one that found the problem

382 

and offered the solution-and then asks why the government is so slow to respond to such an obvious need. The legislators and executive branch officials, who fear looking inept or uncaring, take the lead and proffer solutions not just for that one place but for all, ad infinitum.
     Largely ignored in the expansion of government at higher levels is each individual's dignity. Distant officialdom seems blind to the citizen and that person's place in the overall scheme of things. Murray asks, "When will government stop telling people what to think and start listening to who they are?" For Murray, quantifying the "success" of government through statistics and guidelines is not nearly as important as observing what government does to the concept of individualism (and, in the process, to real people). Here Murray reflects Milton Friedman's concerns voiced in Capitalism and Freedom (Chapter 25).
     Perhaps the juxtaposition between expansive and contracted notions of government is as simple as this: is government there to give things to the governed, or is it there to allow each person to reach his own potential and ensure that others don't get unnecessarily or unfairly in his way (and vice versa)? The welfare state grows out of the misplaced notion that an equality of outcome is the goal of government, or worse, the goal of society. In contrast, the idea of self-sufficiency through individual effort suggests less government and more freedom to strive toward our own goals. Opportunity can be demanding, but that fact should not cause us to try to "protect" anyone, much less everyone, from the consequences and effects of their individual efforts. That kind of protection offers only a dependent, cocooned, and thus incapable and unproductive society.
     An example: retirement security for the citizen. Protecting the worker from her "inability" to invest wisely what she does put aside, and do so without incurring excessive fees, risk of loss, etc., was one of the arguments used in 2006 in deflating the necessity of privatizing at least part of the Social Security system. The liberal view was that Jane Public couldn't do these things and thus we had to continue with the existing fiscally insupportable system (eventually reaching bankruptcy) rather than risk that some citizens might not be able to cope one way or another. The fact that there were additional options to that of private investing of individual Social Security deposits was ignored; a government-operated investment account, protecting any individual citizen's actual funds deposited therein from potential bogymen (including Congress's long reach) is one viable option for those who don't feel comfortable handling their own retirement assets. 

383

The vested interests vetoed this as a consideration-but with growing intellectual and fiscal dishonesty.
     Murray's larger point is that we should prevent retirement funds from falling into the hands of the government in the first place (meaning Congress) because the government does not protect the citizen's retirement; current politicians spend those revenues on non-Social Security projects (to help assure their reelection) and hope the next generation will willingly make up the shortfall via future increases in Social Security taxes and reductions in benefits. The responsibility and opportunity for self-protection in this instance and almost all others should rest with the individual, with paternalistic government oversight (which insists citizens are incompetent) and Congressional thievery truncated.
     Government exists to facilitate self-determined, self-actuated happiness-in the sense of ensuring a level playing field where the rules apply equally to all. Government is not intended to deliver or guarantee equality, or most dangerous of all, to attempt to force it. Murray observes that in order for us to pursue happiness by our own efforts and in our own measure certain realities must prevail-individual freedom and personal responsibility are the two most important of these.
     He notes there is a legitimate role for government in ensuring the fundamentals that allow human beings to achieve. At the most basic level, contending that all are free to pursue life as they see fit is not a defensible proposition if one is homeless or ill or hungry. Alleviating these limiting circumstances has become a justifiable aim of modern government. The administrative or bureaucratic response in this area, however, has become more political than substantive. It is the necessary obligation of the citizenry to ensure that governmental assistance is given in rational measure with regard to the human condition (both its capabilities and its constraints). Political accusations, on one side, of unfeeling or hard-heartedness, or on the other of moral poverty and intellectual hubris, are symmetrically distracting from the common effort.
     Following this path, Murray makes an often forgotten point: while assisting citizens, the government has not just a right to ask those helped to exert themselves, but an obligation to do so. If government does not ask for individual responsibility in return for its assistance, it creates a dependent constituency. This is to the detriment of everyone (both those to be helped and those who pay for such assistance) except the politicians who thrive by "serving" the less well-off. Where the equities lie in the relations between the people themselves and their

384 

government is the stuff of modern social-policy debates. Murray's answer led him to his prescription for good government.
     The nexus of the discussion regarding government's role has changed since the end of the Second World War, during the period when socialism rose toward the sun and then fell in disrepute. Disguised as "good government," the welfare state has risen to take socialism's place among the liberal's answers to life's differences. Economic history has repeatedly shown that a free market creates higher standards of living for those even on the lowest rung of the economic ladder than government intervention in the market has produced as a result of its best efforts. Nevertheless, this lesson, this wheel, must inexorably be reinvented. As Milton Friedman so succinctly points out in Capitalism and Freedom, each government intrusion in the lives of its citizens or their economic machinations, called the "therapeutic impulse," causes an aberration (known commonly as the law of unintended consequences). These distortions require further government meddling until the maze of regulations and prohibitions and simple largesse is incomprehensible. Politicians seem to reflexively respond with more official interference, simply because they can. This is decidedly not the proper role for government in Murray's view.
     Murray is one of the rare essayists who crosses disciplines to get legitimate answers. Government, in Murray's judgment, is not to be studied in isolation (as it so often is) with the hope of discovering what it should do for people and in what measure. It is to be studied in a vortex of all human needs: social, psychological, intellectual, economic, and emotional. Murray holds that government should construct policy to facilitate people reaching their individual potential. That potential is both great and sacrosanct; our failure to address government policy and programs outside the specific goal of any given political agenda is why we achieve so little when we spend so much. It is why government interferes so often and accomplishes only frustration, distortion, and dislocation-not resolution.
     There is a political lesson/problem inherent in this mix. The contingent in Congress that creates and expands the "entitlement" programs that are the point of Murray's discussion do only half their work. They generate political capital through righteousness and a stated belief in the programs they create. However, a refusal to acknowledge that the programs do not achieve their intended result is not part of the equation-it is only their belief in what they are doing that is important. Those on the other side of this equation, who believe that measuring

385 

results is important, are portrayed as mean-spirited-not honest brokers of ideas-if they question the efficacy of what has been constructed. In politics believing is enough. Questioning or even disproving beliefs (in an effort to achieve real results for the actual people whom we intend to help) is denoted as crass, tactless, and insensitive; in the hands of the worst demagogues it is sometimes even deemed racist.
     Murray acknowledges that government can do much, but then it must get out of the way. Its goal should not be merely to make people "feel as if they are in control of events," but to ensure that they actually are in control. Then responsibility for all actions-their success or their failure-lies with individuals who act on their own behalf. Murray's confidence in the results that can be achieved when we let people control their own lives should be measured against the continued progress of free people over the centuries, and the lack of progress generated by most social welfare institutions.
     For Murray, if government must intervene it should do so in a fashion that involves citizens as partners, not as children or charges. Will we waste some money and effort while we refine this approach? We likely will, but in miniscule amounts compared to what we already dissipate in ways too numerous and too voluminous to contemplate (without changing much at all in the lives of those to be helped). Murray states it is incumbent upon us not to be afraid to recognize that government, as much as any other aspect of our lives, is built on trial and error. Pandering political figures-whether elected executives or legislators or un-elected bureaucrats or judges-err in their faith that they can create perfect programs and achieve error-free results in the face of uncooperative reality. Not without reason have we come to distrust government and government's judgment.
     Political handouts and attempts at a redistribution of the country's profits through the power of government to tax (or to spend money it doesn't even have, through deficit financing) hasn't made a difference in the ability of the less successful to help themselves in anywhere near the proportion of resources devoted to this venture (five trillion dollars spent on federal welfare programs between Lyndon Johnson's presidency and the advent of welfare reform in 1996, with only an increase in the number of recipients to show for these efforts during that period). Since government has instead often gotten in the way of its stated goal of self-help, Murray contemplates that it is time to change the paradigm.
     As a specific example of his approach, Murray discusses volunteerism. To volunteer one's help is instinctive, reflexive. Volunteering

386 

brings social gains from myriad points of departure. Murray finds that volunteerism can be fostered by the government, even though few lawmakers recognize the advantages of doing so. Politicians want to denigrate volunteerism because it doesn't, they allege, accomplish enough, or isn't certain to solve each and every aspect of each and every problem (as though government programs do). The failure of government initiatives to achieve their stated goals easily evidences how little a bureaucracy can understand a community of problems.
     Part of the larger picture is that government looks at volunteerism as a numbers game; for the bureaucrat, volunteer efforts cannot help all or even enough people. To an extent, this belief came to be the rule during the Great Depression of the 1930s when private volunteer efforts were overwhelmed by the masses of destitute people who needed help. Those economic conditions no longer exist and are not likely to re-emerge. It is time to let the pendulum of government assistance swing back. Murray contends that the view that the private sector cannot do enough is both false and facile, and that experience has demonstrated otherwise.
     Volunteerism is a social perspective and psychological attitude, each of which fosters the success of private charitable enterprises. It is infectious and self-reinforcing for both the volunteers and those to be assisted. For Murray, volunteerism is built not just on the needs of those helped (the handout approach), but on the gains those in need can make for themselves when empowered in myriad ways (the hand up approach). Grasping this contrarian reality is fundamental to comprehending Murray's perspective. (For an in-depth understanding of volunteerism, both historical and practical, see Richard Cornuelle's Reclaiming the American Dream [Chapter 30].) That volunteer programs increase every year, that new non-profit organizations are more numerous every year speaks directly to the human spirit on which Murray and Cornuelle rely. That these programs demonstrate government ineffectiveness and failure as the impetus for the efforts of the people who create them tells us most of what we need to know about public administration.
     In Murray's view, government function and individual happiness are conjoined only when the former creates opportunities for self-awareness, self-involvement, and self-help; they work at cross-purposes when government offers only idealized assistance from above that has no direct correlation to an individual's particular needs or potential. The assessment of a policy designed pursuant to Murray's perspective would focus less on the gross numbers of persons to be helped and more on

387 

what an individual could do based on the policy's goal, its resources, and the assistance to be offered. In other words, Murray's assessment is results oriented, not numbers driven. The numbers will take care of themselves if results-not programs-become the goal.
     He recommends a strategy of building government programs from the individual up. Such programs, designed to help people rather than populations, would readily accommodate rational assessment of their efficacy. By instituting meaningful assessment we have an opportunity to at least arrive at more rational government. An example of this approach was federal welfare reform implemented as an effect of the Contract with America-a group of legislative goals developed by Republicans elected to Congress in 1994. This effort resulted in two changes to existing welfare programs: first, it sent welfare program design responsibility from the federal level to the states while instituting accountability for results; second, it placed a limit on the number of years anyone could
receive benefits so long as they were able to work. The program focused on both training and assistance in finding employment. At the time there were concerns that people who were no longer eligible to receive benefits would flood private charitable programs-but that never happened. What did happen was an almost immediate significant reduction in the number of people on welfare and a significant increase in former welfare recipients becoming employed.
     The question is not why was this reform so successful, but how did it happen so quickly? The answer is simple, and it flows from Murray's approach to public administration. People were given two things: an incentive to change (the eventual end to their benefits), and an opportunity to make a change for the better (employment and a beginning toward self-sufficiency). The public cost was well worth bearing this time, and both political parties engaged in substantive assessment and practical change-based on one elementary fact: human nature and its striving toward human dignity.
     Murray counsels against ever asking how government can solve any social problem. He prefers to pose an entirely different question: "What in society is happening that is preventing people from solving the problem for themselves?" In most instances, we already know the answer, but we can't seem to get from A to B, much less from A to Z, often because it is actually government that is in the way. One of Murray's examples remains particularly germane. Since we know how to educate children (as people have done it for thousands of generations) why aren't we doing it effectively today? The answer is invariably

388 

not more money or more testing (we have thrown so much of both at the system it is embarrassing). The answer is more care, more attention, more time, more parenting, more choice, and more family involvement, regardless of whether the family is extended or blended or even fragmented. No government program and no cadre of education "professionals" can act as the substitute for those ingredients no matter how much money we pour into the effort.
     The consequence of implementing these elements into education also requires that families have an ability to effect change when change is needed-that means they must be able to choose the educational venue they feel is best for their children. That competition will improve all schools, as it improves everything else in life, is patent. To continue to deny the efficacy of instituting competition in the educational process is simply insulting to both the electorate and the parents whose children are forced into failing schools run by self-protective teachers and administrators.
The more opportunity we have to do for ourselves, to grasp responsibility, the closer we get to taking care of ourselves. Although Murray is the first to admit that our best efforts cannot perfect the world, his contention that those efforts can make it better is virtually certain. Isn't that just what we've been doing for hundreds of centuries-making the world better through our own individual and group efforts?
     Murray spends much time investigating the human spirit-the essential element of life-and human needs, the essential foundation of physical existence. Once basic needs have been met via the creation of what Murray terms enabling conditions, the most pressing issue is human liberty. Each of us ought to be unhindered to pursue happiness in any fashion that does not inhibit the pursuit of happiness by those around us. The challenge for Murray, as enunciated by Bernard Bailyn (in The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution [1967]), is to create an atmosphere

               where the use of power over the lives of men was jealously guarded
               and severely restricted. It was only where there was this defiance, this
               refusal to truckle, this distrust of authority, political or social, that
               institutions could express human aspirations, not crush them.

     Having recognized the ugly phenomenon of how a person's conduct often worsens once he gains power, Murray argues for government

389 

not to be any more powerful than necessary. The individual's potential is regularly subverted by the authority of those over him. Therefore it is exceedingly difficult to justify the power supposedly transferred to the government by the governed. The governed vote and act as individuals, while government reciprocates by setting one-size-fits-all economic and social policy. As that measurement never actually fits well, the function and form of government should in all instances be as limited as possible. When a government assumes as little control over the people as necessary, and operates as close to those to be helped as feasible, then in Murray's view, we will come closer to good government. Government function and individual happiness are conjoined when bureaucracy creates opportunities for self-help. They are disconnected when government sees its role as controlling assistance-a condescending and paternalistic approach.
     Murray looks at all the unmet promises of government and asks how many such failures must occur before those toward whom assistance is directed evidence a learned helplessness. This condition then "requires" an even greater governmental effort to remedy past failures. Murray wants to unlock the potential for human achievement-potential now smothered in governmentally controlled programs that tell people what they supposedly cannot do for themselves. Murray's approach is an honest presentation of his faith in individual effort coupled with minimal government. Murray's examples ring true to what each of us knows specifically about himself and about human potential in general. The prospects are endless when people are treated with dignity and the respect that recognizes what they can do for themselves when given the opportunity.3

On the overall subject of “good government” it is more than valuable to observe what occurred in New Zealand when wholesale government reform was achieved in the late 1980s.  The country went from welfarism/socialism to a free-market economy in just a few short years, reduced the size of government by staggering numbers, and changed the lives of New Zealanders in a most remarkable way.  Their success at creating good government would be considered a fable if it was not so demonstrably real.  Much of this was accomplished through the efforts of the Hon. Maurice McTigue and his New Zealand compatriots.  Mr. McTigue has brought his approach and the lessons learned to the United States as part of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University in Arlington , Virginia .  His programs and goals can be viewed through the center’s website www.mercatus.org. But the real value of McTigue’s experience can be gleaned from a CD titled “Making Government Accountable: Reform Lessons from New Zealand .”  Listening to Mr. McTigue describe what was accomplished during New Zealand’s reform years offers sheer inspiration to those who are confounded and frustrated by government’s ever-widening grasp and malfunctioning intrusions into the lives of citizens.  The CD can be obtained or downloaded through the Mercatus Center ’s website.  

390

About the Author
Charles Murray is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. Born in 1943 in Newton, Iowa, he earned his undergraduate degree from Harvard in 1965 and subsequently spent six years in Asia as a Peace Corps volunteer and then as a researcher. Upon his return home he earned a Ph.D. in political science in 1974 from MIT. His investigations into crime, poverty, and social programs led him to write Losing Ground: American Social Policy 1950-80. This book did much to set the tone of President Ronald Reagan's domestic policy.
     Murray's career as one of the nation's most influential conservative thinkers is well established. He lectures and publishes widely and is a frequent witness before congressional committees. Murray's most controversial book, The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (with Richard Herrnstein) posits that wealth and other positive social outcomes are a product of intelligence and that intelligence is an innate characteristic that it is foolish to pretend either isn't important or can be compensated for in some fashion (political or otherwise) that eliminates the need to recognize its existence. Published in 1994, the book caused a still-continuing social debate.

Available through:
Institute for Contemporary Studies
720 Market St.
San Francisco, CA 94102
(800) 326-0263
www.icspress.com

391

 
Back to Top