Commentary Magazine


In Pursuit of Happiness and Good Government, by Charles Murray

Toward the Good Life

In Pursuit of Happiness and Good Government.
by Charles Murray.
Simon & Schuster. 301 pp. $17.95.

This deeply thoughtful book by the author of Losing Ground (1984) recalls the boldness of the early 80’s, a time when it seemed as if the very assumptions underlying much of domestic policy were ripe for reconsideration. Unfortunately, the election campaign we have just passed through, between candidates both of whose grand policy designs amounted to undiluted incrementalism, was practically silent on the fundamental matters Murray addresses: the essential elements of a good life in a free society, the proper role of government, the subtle relationships between public and private, between governmental and voluntary, between community and state. But this makes In Pursuit of Happiness all the more valuable, for to read it is to be reminded of the difference between what is basic and what is superficial in deliberations about public policy.

Murray’s careful spadework reveals wide cracks in the conceptual foundations of the policy edifice. Among analysts and policy-makers alike he finds a profound misunderstanding of human motivation and behavior, acute memory loss with respect to the Founders’ conception of the scope of government, and lazy intellectual habits that yield grave errors in analysis, program design, and evaluation. His book is full of well-wrought “thought experiments,” telling reappraisals of conventional wisdom, and dazzling ratiocination. No summary is apt to do it justice, but these points are indispensable:

  • In an affluent society the minimal material needs of food and clothing are readily met, and once met, turn out to have little to do with happiness, defined by Murray as “lasting and justified satisfaction with one’s life as a whole.” Thus, it is not the distribution of goods and wealth but rather the pursuit of happiness in this larger sense that constitutes the only fit standard by which to gauge success in the design of social policy. The question to be asked of governmental actions, real or contemplated, is whether they are likely to foster or to inhibit the conditions for pursuing happiness.
  • The proper unit of study in appraising a policy or program is the individual, not the collectivity.
  • The most that government can reasonably undertake to do is to “maximize the ability of each person to put himself in a situation satisfactory to his own needs,” one in which he is enabled to take the actions that will afford him happiness. But “‘enable’ is as far as the government can go,” for it is people, not governments, who pursue happiness, and who decide when they have achieved it.
  • The wisest and most effective public policies are those that remove obstacles to the exercise by individuals, communities, and “little platoons” (Murray here borrowing from Burke) of their own instincts and impulses to order their affairs in ways that foster the pursuit of happiness. So long as governments prevent violence and coercion, people can be counted upon to do most of the rest. An overactive government removes the natural incentive to provide for oneself and one’s neighbors, and it often fails to achieve the fundamental objective of policy.

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An example Murray probes at extended length and considerable depth is the goal of getting better teachers into American schools. He accurately states the “conventional paradigm”: to attract more able people into the profession, we should have more rigorous entry standards, and we should give teachers higher pay, greater status, better working conditions, and greater professional autonomy. Murray insists that such a program, if enacted, will not work. Though “the failure will not be immediately apparent,” in a few years “the teachers will be no better and may actually be worse.”

The reason is that for a policy like this to succeed, individuals will have to take actions they oppose and submit to practices which go against their interests. If, for example, we actually mean to weed out “incompetents,” standards of teacher certification will have to be set so high that some competent teachers will inevitably be excluded as well. For this reason, teachers and their unions will offer intense and ultimately successful resistance to high standards—and, Murray acknowledges, reasonable people will think this justified.

Giving teachers greater autonomy will likewise fail, Murray predicts, because it cannot but weaken the authority of principals to manage their schools. Even so obvious a nostrum as higher salaries will not, he forecasts (with somewhat less plausibility), boost teacher quality, because the kinds of increases we might realistically expect—$5,000 to $10,000 a year—will “make it only slightly less sacrificial for the talented to be teachers, but much more attractive for the second-rate to become teachers.” Besides, “we’ve raised teachers’ salaries for years without getting better teachers.”

The alternative Murray offers for solving this and other vexing school-related problems is a radical decentralization of the education enterprise. Let a hundred parents get together and determine the kind of education they want for their children, the kinds of teachers they want to provide that education, and the amount of money (together with other incentives, rewards, and conditions) they will need to furnish in order to obtain such teachers. Remove all constraints as to whom they can hire. Expect them to deploy only such resources as they can muster. And let them establish the sort of school they favor. This will succeed, Murray says, because such a policy lowers barriers to doing what people care about and are naturally disposed to do: “Give parents control over the education of their children . . . and you will unleash enormous energy and imagination, all tending toward the excellent end of educated children.”

A bold—nay, radical—idea, and hence sure to be dismissed as “naive” or “politically unrealistic.” Murray acknowledges that narrower and more conventional policy goals can be pursued through less sweeping means; if, for example, the objective is only to produce high-school graduates who know more math or science, there are myriad ways to accomplish this by souping-up the present school system. But insofar as our goal is the “pursuit of happiness” by people “in all classes and in all occupations,” he insists that in education, as in other areas of social policy, arrangements must foster the exercise of peoples’ own best instincts and private predilections.

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The formulation is surely sound, and it is engagingly argued throughout this important book. Yet Murray does miss a few beats, most gravely in his seeming obliviousness to state government and to the key role it plays in many social-policy domains—including, especially, education. The political model Murray constructs seems to consist on the one hand of the federal government and on the other hand of individuals, voluntary associations, and small communities. Yet in education, law enforcement, and various other social-policy settings, the central players in recent years have been governors and legislators. They bear the constitutional responsibility for these matters. And a number of them have had greater success in their endeavors than Charles Murray may realize.

How odd, to use one of Murray’s favorite phrases, that so insightful a book by a first-rate political thinker, intent on recapturing the federalist principles of the Founding Fathers, should be virtually silent on one of the more remarkable governmental developments of the decade.

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