Obama the libertarian? Americans say they’d be happy if government got out of their way

Four years from now, how will Obama be judged?
Four years from now, how will Obama be judged?
Image: AP Photo / Charles Dharapak
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Four years from now—or 40—how should we evaluate Barack Obama’s presidency? This is not an easy question. For example, when things go badly (or well), a tricky aspect of this question is “To what extent is the president responsible for what happened?” Ruchir Sharma argues that in their judgment of the last four years, voters put the primary blame for our economic troubles on inevitable after-effects of the financial crisis that hit in 2008. Another tricky aspect of judging a presidency is deciding how to sum things up when a policy initiated by the president helps one group while hurting another. But the first question to ask four years from now, in 2016, will be “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”

It’s often assumed that in answering this question people are referring to their financial situation. But what if they took happiness into account as well? As Allison Steed points out in her Nov. 29 article in the Telegraph, “Here’s How Much You Need to Be ‘Happy’ in Different Countries,”  financial aspirations can differ a lot across countries. And money is clearly not the only thing that matters for happiness. A Pew Research Center Report on happiness around the world shows that while happiness goes up with per capita GDP, at similar middle-income levels, the Latin American countries do better than expected while Eastern European countries do worse than expected.

In two previous Quartz columns, I discussed evidence that happiness is not enough: people want to be rich, successful, happy and much more. In previous research my co-authors and I found that in both hypothetical situations and the real-world choices young doctors make about which residency to choose, happiness was very important, but so was money and prestige.  This would be paradoxical if each of the people we surveyed defined “happiness” as “whatever it is I want,” but in fact, people used the word “happiness” to mean “feeling happy.”

That people want more than money makes GDP an inadequate measure of well-being. That they want more than happiness makes happiness an inadequate measure of well-being. So it won’t work to simply replace GDP with Gross National Happiness as Richard Layard advocates in his book, Happiness. And looking at National Life Satisfaction has a similar problem.

So let’s get serious about what it means for an individual or a nation to be better off. Constructing a solid measure of national well-being requires answering the two questions “What do people want and how much do they want it?” So my coauthors Daniel Benjamin, Ori Heffetz, Nichole Szembrot and I set out to answer exactly those questions in our National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper “Beyond Happiness and Life Satisfaction: Toward Well-Being Indices Based on Stated Preference.” We gave about 4,600 US adults hard choices to make in computer-generated scenarios where they had to identify both what people wanted for themselves and what they wanted for the nation as a whole. We didn’t want to prejudge, so we started with a list of 136 aspects of life that people might care about, drawing from a wide-ranging scientific and philosophical literature, as well as spirited discussions among the four of us.

The answers we found to “What do people want and how much do they want it?” were at once surprising and the height of common sense. I want to focus on the answers people gave for what they wanted for the nation as a whole, since that is primarily what a president should be judged on. One important finding is that, even across divisions of party, religion, age and sex, people by and large put the same things at the top of the list of what they want for the nation.  And the things they want for the nation as a whole are similar to the things they want for themselves.

Let me give my take on the top 25 things we found people want for the nation as a whole. Freedom comes first: freedom from injustice, corruption, emotional abuse and abuse of power; freedom of speech and political participation, freedom to pursue one’s dreams and the freedom of having choices. Besides freedom, people want for the nation goodness, truth, loyalty, respect and justice.

Only after freedom and goodness, do the “bread-and-butter” aspects of people lives start to come in. These bread-and-butter aspects are reflected in 11 of the top 25 aspects of life, including people’s health and freedom from pain, financial security, someone to turn to in time of need, emotional stability, a sense of security and peace, and activities to enjoy. Beyond freedom, goodness, and the practical, bread-and-butter aspects of people’s lives I just listed, people want meaning—the sense that one is making a difference in the world–for themselves and for others.

Freedom, goodness, truth, loyalty, respect, justice, bread-and-butter concerns, meaning: people’s hopes for our nation, and for themselves, extend to a lot more than money and happiness. I believe the breadth of what people want for the nation has implications for the policies our country should pursue, and how we should judge President Obama four years from now. In drawing out those implications, I will leave aside the bread-and-butter concerns, and concerns about “justice,” since I think our leaders understand those better than the other concerns.

One of the best ways to increase the freedom in the world is to allow more people to come to the United States to experience and tell of the freedom we have here, as I advocated in my Quartz column “Obama Could Really Help the US Economy by Pushing for More Legal Immigration.” But there is a lot to be done to preserve and bolster freedom in the US. Taxes represent a loss of freedom that should be mitigated in the kinds of ways I suggest in my post “No Tax Increase Without Recompense.” The conflict between employees’ freedom at work and employers’ freedom to lay down work requirements need to be fairly adjudicated, as discussed in my post “Jobs.” And every government regulation, in addition to whatever other costs and benefits it has, causes a loss of freedom from telling somebody what they must do.

When we do constrain freedom by regulation, it should be in service of something important, such as truth: people’s freedom from being lied to, deceived or betrayed. It is worth remembering that the standard results about the virtues of the free market all depend on deception being effectively neutralized–so there is no fundamental conflict between economic growth and laws that block corporate deception and throw scam artists in jail.  Enforcing the basic principle of telling the truth, like enforcing property rights, is an area where government is on the side of the angels.

Meaning, goodness, loyalty and respect are the trickiest for public policy to foster. As a social scientist who does research supported by government grants, I would like to think that there is some sense of meaning for all of us in humanity’s efforts at scientific research, such as medical research and the kind of research to slow global warming advocated by Noah Smith in his Atlantic column “The End of Global Warming: How to Save the Earth in 2 Easy Steps.” But I think a big part of what government needs to do to foster meaning, goodness, loyalty and respect is to stay out of the way. In this regard, I am worried about recent discussion of limiting the charitable deduction. My proposal for a system of “public contributions” is a way to reform and refocus the purpose of the charitable deduction instead, in order to reduce the government deficit, and reduce the footprint of the government, without depriving people of help they need.

From doing this research, I am left with the overwhelming impression that—even in the realm of intangibles—what people hope for and wish for is not one thing, but many things. Our desires are boundless. And that is how it should be. As Robert Browning wrote, ”Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?”