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Charles Murray on the pursuit of happiness (1988)

The American policy analyst Charles Murray cogently observes that people do not need to be taught how to pursue happiness since they do this naturally and spontaneously, “unless impeded”:

No one has to teach people how to pursue happiness. Unless impeded, people form communities that allow them to get the most satisfaction from the material resources they have. Unless impeded, they enforce norms of safety that they find adequate. Unless impeded, they develop norms of self-respect that are satisfying and realistic for the members of that community. Unless impeded, people engage in activities that they find to be intrinsically rewarding, and they know (without being taught) how to invest uninteresting activities with intrinsic rewards.

A summing-up: The ways in which people pursue happiness are rooted in, processed through, and enhanced by little platoons. Little platoons are vital insofar as they consist of people voluntarily doing important things together. To enable people to pursue happiness, good social policy consists of leaving the important things in life for people to do for themselves, and protecting them from coercion by others as they go about their lives.

The policy principle may be stated as simply as this: No one has to teach people how to pursue happiness. Unless impeded, people form communities that allow them to get the most satisfaction from the material resources they have. Unless impeded, they enforce norms of safety that they find adequate. Unless impeded, they develop norms of self-respect that are satisfying and realistic for the members of that community. Unless impeded, people engage in activities that they find to be intrinsically rewarding, and they know (without being taught) how to invest uninteresting activities with intrinsic rewards.

The behaviors that lead to these happy results do not have to be prompted by or mandated for anyone, neither for people with wealth and education nor for people with little money and little education. Does everyone always act in every way to achieve these positive results? No. My assertion rather is that these behaviors reach a maximum on their own. Unless impeded, people continually make small, incremental changes in their lives that facilitate their pursuit of happiness, and the mechanism whereby they accomplish this is voluntary affiliations with other people. To encourage, nourish, and protect vital little platoons, the government’s main task is to make sure that no one interferes with people coming together in these voluntary acts of mutual benefit.

About this Quotation:

Charles Murray makes two interesting points (among very many) in his book. The first is that “the pursuit of happiness” is part of human nature and therefore individuals do not need to be taught how to do this. It comes naturally and spontaneously to humans and “all” the government has to do is protect individual rights and keep coercion to a minimum. The important proviso he introduces into this happy picture is the key phrase “unless impeded”, by which he means either by other individuals or by the state itself. The second interesting point he makes is in regard to Robert Nozick’s idea of “competing utopias” which he developed in his influential book Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974) which was published 14 years before Murray’s book appeared. Murray’s conclusion is that Nozick’s utopian fantasy would result is something “eerily similar” to what came out of the Philadelphia convention of 1787, namely the constitution of the United States of America.

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