The Right Coast

March 17, 2005
Capitalism and Happiness
By Chris Wonnell

The Left has never liked capitalism, but that doesn't mean it has been consistent in its critique through the years. During the 1930s the Left attacked capitalism for not producing the jobs and the products that people desired. Now that it does seem to be producing what people desire, the New Left critique is that giving people what they desire will not ultimately make them happy.

What are we to make of this criticism? Given a moderate interpretation, it is not an especially damning argument, and may very well have elements of truth. We may be wired to desire certain things that were good for our genetic ancestors in another era, like high fat foods, that now disserve our long run interests. But the critique is usually meant in some more comprehensive sense, that there simply is no relationship between what people desire and what will actually make them happy. We are constantly finding, after we get what we desire, that it didn't make us as happy as we thought it would.

Let us play amateur sociobiologist again. Evolution has programmed us to stay alive and to reproduce, not to be either happy or unhappy as such. Indeed, it can't be good for an organism to walk around in either rapturous bliss or in stultifying dejection. We need to be calm, and to respond pragmatically to our environment, and this requires a moderate background state and the possibility of feeling significant gains or losses from that background based on the incremental actions we take. So it should not be surprising that our bodies give us jolts of short-term pleasure and pain to reward or punish us for our choices and then return us to that normal state fairly soon after that choice, whatever it was.

If this description of human nature is plausible, what does it say about the critique of capitalism? First of all, the argument is not especially about capitalism at all. There is no reason to believe we would be happier if our desires were systematically frustrated. Rather, this biological tendency makes it difficult to make people enduringly happy with any social system, capitalist or otherwise. However, champions of capitalism would like a better answer than that. Is there no room for a utilitarian defense of capitalism against a nihilistic charge that any social system is destined to produce about the same level of happiness in the long run?

I think there is a better answer. We should distinguish between immediate sensory experience and the retrospective intellectualization of that experience. I am from Chicago originally, and now live in San Diego. My observation is that people complain about the weather roughly the same amount in the two cities. That doesn't mean it wasn't genuinely painful to walk the streets of Chicago in the winter and feel like you were being stuck by needles. In intellectualizing the experience, however, Chicagoans simply took it stoically and could honestly state that the weather did not make them especially unhappy. There was the pain, but hey, it is winter time. Of course, when given the choice, a lot of Chicagoans moved to San Diego, and not that many have moved back.

Progress may consist more of improvements in immediate sensory experience than in changes in reflective intellectualization of one's condition. Surely our nature wires us to detect when it is too cold for us out there, so that we will tend to the problem when we can. The feeling of pain is genuine, but it doesn't translate into existential suffering because that would not be good for us. I think that this is largely the kind of progress that capitalism has achieved. It has made our lives as they are pre-intellectually experienced much more pleasurable and less painful than they were before capitalism, not only in terms of mitigating bodily pain but also in terms of immediate experiences of cognitive or aesthetic pleasure. But when we are in the mood for assessing our condition reflectively we are not going to see ourselves as especially happy or unhappy. The normative claim is that it is better to live lives that are pleasurable rather than painful even if one will, at the end of the day, answer a question "how happy are you on a scale of 1 to 10?" the same in either state.