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Expired · 13th March 2011
Ray Grigg
Perhaps the pursuit of happiness was never such a good idea. But, in 1776, this objective from the French Enlightenment seemed to be convincing enough that it was incorporated into the Constitution of the newly formed United States of America as a founding principle.

Happiness as an objective should have been suspect from the beginning. The serious pursuit of it arose out of the emotional exuberance of 18th century Baroque that then became the decorative frivolity of Rococo. Justification for creating these two aesthetic styles in Western civilization seemed more closely related to extravagant indulgence than temperate responsibility. The music of both periods was sublime – Bach evolved into Mozart – but the pursuit of happiness itself came from the apex of decadent aristocratic life, before its privileges were shaken by the seismic revolutions in America and France, and the subsequent political shocks that radically altered Europe's social structure.

This history is the primary reason why happiness should be doubted as a founding principle for any country. Happiness is essentially frivolous, superficial and ephemeral. It is not as profound, solid or reliable as contentment, tranquility or cooperation. As an objective, happiness is restless, uncertain and fickle, hardly suitable for a new America that prided itself as the living political embodiment of the Enlightenment's high principles. But this obsession with happiness does begin to explain the present financial dilemma facing the United States and those other countries that have modelled their economies on the naive optimism underlying the dubious ideals of unfettered capitalism and boundless consumerism.

One of the financial legacies of the unrestrained pursuit of happiness is debt. The US budgetary deficit for 2011 is $1.6 trillion. Its national debt is $14.3 trillion and counting. The US government's budgetary strategy is frozen in a stalemate between two mutually incompatible paths to happiness: the Republicans refuse to increase taxes to reduce debt while the Democrats refuse to relinquish the social programs that are too costly for the present tax regime. Unless this impasse can be broken, the annual US deficit is expected to increase to about $10 trillion by 2021. By then, the US will have spent as much as $200 trillion on miscellaneous programs and entitlements that can only be financed by borrowing. The burden of debt will eventually become more than the country can bear and the result will be financial and political collapse. Traces of this process are already occurring in many US states.

In The Empire of Debt, Jason Kirby (Maclean's, Feb. 14/11) refers to the Harvard economic historian, Niall Ferguson, who notes that in recent centuries the empires of the Spanish, French, Ottoman and British all collapsed under the weight of excessive debt. When the cost of servicing their debt reached 50 to 60 percent of revenues, and when interest rates rose as investors lost confidence in the security of their loans, the collapse of these empires occurred as quickly as 15 to 20 years.

A survey of 26 of the major industrial economies of the world – excluding only China – indicates an epidemic of ascending debt. Recent massive infusions of cash to Iceland, Ireland and Greece have avoided default on loans and averted a global financial crisis. But from Australia at 40 percent of its GDP to Japan at 210 percent, the debt situation of the world's major economies looks gloomy – the US sits at 100 percent of its GDP while Canada, at 83 percent, is burdened with record high consumer debt. Japan owes $11.98 trillion, just short of 1 quadrillion yen. Its economic structure, the third largest on the planet, is described as a "Madoff scheme" that is doomed to fail.

The seriousness of all this debt is usually excused by the argument that expanding economic activity reduces the debt-to-GDP ratio, thereby decreasing the seriousness of any deficits – if the economy continues to expand faster than the debt then the burden of debt seems to shrink.This is the thinking used to justify deficit and debt. But such logic fails when considering that any particular economy could contract, a clear possibility given that countries exist in competitive relationships with each other, that global financial structures are inherently unstable, and that finite natural resources are not perpetually available to fuel ever-expanding economies.

This is the darkening shadow that hangs over the entire global financial system. Our economies and our lifestyles are founded on the monetary security of a system built entirely on precarious trust and rash optimism. When stresses such as political unrest, oil shortage, crop failure or climate catastrophes are added to the unstable intricacies of globalization, then the prospects seem increasingly uncertain and sobering.

Many human aspirations are laudable – if the aspirations are wise. But the pursuit of happiness may be the most elusive and empty of all aspirations. Indeed, the root cause of the multitude of crises we are now encountering – from financial to environmental – may be this superficial aspiration. Our imaginations have linked the unfulfillable quest for happiness with materialism and consumerism, an association that the machinery of economics is obligingly exploiting to its own impersonal ends. The result for us is frenzied effort, perpetual restlessness, eternal dissatisfaction and the mindless exploitation of Earth's biosystems beyond sustainability.

Perhaps we should accept that the pursuit of happiness has overreached the reality of limits and utility, and that we urgently need a replacement that is more nourishing, substantial and promising.
Happiness is Frivolous?
Comment by Paul Ryan on 13th March 2011
As a very wise being once said, "There is no way to happiness. Happiness is the way!"