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Would More Extreme Capitalism Make Us Happier?

David Callahan
In the course of his 2,000-word article on happiness on happiness in the Sunday Times, Arthur Brooks -- who leads the American Enterprise Institute -- offers a lecture on how work and earned success are keys to happiness. He also expresses concern about declining mobility in the United States -- a concern you don't hear often from the right. 
So far, so good. Then, Brooks goes on to argue that "Free enterprise gives the most people the best shot at earning their success and finding enduring happiness in their work. It creates more paths than any other system to use one’s abilities in creative and meaningful ways. . . . To share happiness, we need to fight for free enterprise and strive to make its blessings accessible to all."
Okay, now here's where things get tricky. Just what, exactly, is Brooks talking about when he says "free enterprise?" Is he talking about the low-wage U.S. economy where over half of workers make under $30,000 a year in jobs that often lead nowhere, include few benefits, and may include forced work on Thanksgiving and other holidays? Or is he talking about free enterprise within a more mixed economy, where government ensures a higher level of basic security for all workers -- including health insurance, paid vacation and family leave, and more? 
It would make sense if Brooks were referring to the latter kind of economy, given what we know about happiness around the world. According to a major new U.N. study on happiness worldwide, released in September, people in following five countries rank as the happiest:
  • Denmark
  • Norway
  • Switzerland
  • Netherlands
  • Sweden 
Gallup World poll in 2012 found similar results, but included Finland and Canada higher on the list than Sweden. 
Now, what do all these countries have in common? They are rich countries which provide a basic level of security to all people, including health insurance. So even if you have a crappy job or suffer a major setback, you know one thing: you'll never be abandoned by your fellow citizens. They are also countries with less inequality where low-wage workers can do okay and often have a voice through unions. 
Not so in the United States, which could be one reason that we clock in at number 17 on the U.N.'s new happiness list -- behind Panama and Mexico. 
If Arthur Brooks want to convince us that capitalism is better than communism in terms of giving people a reason to work and strive, he'll get no argument from me. But, of course, that's not the debate -- which is actually over the right balance between the market and government.
And if the goal is happiness, it appears that the more statist European countries who sand down the rough edges of free enterprise are doing a better job than the U.S. right now.