conservative happiness

In Pursuit: Of Happiness and Good Government by Charles Murray

Throughout his long and highly productive career, Charles Murray has done the seemingly impossible. He has melded his strong libertarianism with respect for, and insights from, the work of Robert Nisbet and Russell Kirk. He has trained as a social scientist, worked for the Peace Corps, and written about the dangers of government intervention. He has fearlessly laid out arguments and data about intrinsic inequalities in an attempt to make social policy more truly compassionate and social structures more truly supportive of people with fewer life chances than the elites who make that policy. Most important, he has mastered social science data while concerning himself fundamentally with the nature of the human person. This, his deepest and most important if not his most appreciated work, encapsulates Murray’s essential viewpoint by setting forth the philosophical goals and implications of social science. 

The problems with our burgeoning social democracy are deep and widespread. They have their roots in a false vision of reality and end up stunting the lives of millions. Yet those who question prevailing prejudices must constantly face charges of being “uncaring” apologists for the rich and powerful. This sad irony is made real by the power of bad ideas. How so? The social engineers who run and support our welfare and administrative state present themselves as great optimists, who recognize the limitless possibilities of individuals, if only the government would enable them to pursue their dreams. The old, traditional, vision of society, they tell us, saw people as mere objects, condemned by their limited intelligence, and social and economic status, to lives with little meaning or purpose. With the help of a government committed to fairness, however, we as a nation can transcend the limits imposed by history, transforming society and even ourselves into whatever we truly want to be.

Murray has spent the bulk of his career pointing out the disastrous consequences of social engineers’ faith in human malleability and their prideful self-conception, especially in regard to their power to transform society and the people their bureaucracies would help. But Murray’s message is not one of mere pessimism concerning our ability to change who we are. Fundamentally, it is a message of hope. For this book proclaims the possibility, and the reality, of human happiness. Our liberal society promises only the constant pursuit of pleasures-of-the-moment. Government, on this view, should “help us” by making it easier for us to acquire an endless procession of new toys and new relationships to be used until the thrill wears off, then discarded for the next “new” thing. Meanwhile Murray, in this book, persuasively argues that each and every one of us is capable of living a life that includes genuine and lasting happiness. What is more, he argues, it is natural for us to live reasonably happy lives, provided our natural motivations are not perverted by bad public policy.

One should not overstate this point. Murray points out that perfect happiness, “the best of all worlds” is impossible (I would add, “in this life”). Our nature is flawed, as are all of our institutions, beliefs and practices, and reality includes tragedy. But we have a natural propensity to pursue happiness, and to find it in communities that are themselves natural, that will form and operate on their own, if only allowed to do so.

And here is the crux of Murray’s argument. In order to be happy, individuals must be members of communities. Through an unerring use of examples drawn from social science, Murray shows how we know, or should know, that people have a need for close personal connections, a need to be challenged, and a need to be held to real, substantive standards of behavior within real, authoritative social structures if they are to be happy. Moreover, he shows, while we generally can be decent and caring in our daily lives, the realities of political power tend bring out our pride and selfishness in ways that cause damage to the fundamental groups in which we pursue happiness.

Crucial to the success of this book is Murray’s lucid, conversational style. Not everyone could combine arguments and examples from Aristotle, the American founders, and a variety of psychologists, sociologists, and political scientists to make a readable and enjoyable book. Important, here, is Murray’s treatment of his sources as just that—neither bludgeons to force us to admit that he is right (or admit we are stupid) nor unquestioned authorities speaking from on high, but worthwhile ideas and interesting facts we can use in applying our own reason to important problems.

Murray himself recognizes the limitation of his conversational style: it assumes his audience is willing to consider the data and arguments he presents. But those data and arguments are fundamentally at odds with today’s ruling prejudices, showing as they do the existence and implications of a real, consistent, and limited human nature. They tell us that happiness requires, not material goods and the self-esteem that comes from being overseen, praised, and protected, but challenges and the self-respect that comes from facing those challenges, alone and with our fellows in the natural communities of family and local, generally geographically centered associations. Murray provides a good deal of evidence, from social science experiments to the great tradition of natural law thought, that his view of human nature is true. But those who prefer the second, false, reality of ideology will not bow to tradition, or even to the increasingly clear evidence of their own experiments if the cost is abandoning their dreams of mastery over their own nature.

This book, first published some twenty-five years ago and now made available again by Liberty Fund, remains as relevant today as it was in 1988. Sadly, the United States has moved even farther away from policies rooted in a true vision of human nature toward a dispiriting social democracy. The material requirements for happiness, while real, are relatively easy to meet, as Murray argues, and our public policies have moved even farther toward guaranteeing people basic material benefits by pushing aside the social groups that actually help them lead decent, rewarding lives. Real happiness continues to be sacrificed at the altar of a mythical vision that each of us is, in essence, an insubstantial maker of choices, who can be made content with empty platitudes about equality and the distribution of material goods—at least until we all go bankrupt. One of Murray’s more evocative examples of our pursuit of happiness concerns the sense of “flow” social scientists have found we all feel when our hard work and training have prepared us for excellence in performance. Whether a basketball player on the court or a writer in front of his computer, the real “payoff” for our preparation comes when the ball, or the words, seem to move of their own accord toward their proper end. Information operators and waitresses can have this experience as well as star ball players. But this very essential phenomenon, the goal and fulfillment of our professional lives, is simply not possible in liberal terms. In his book A Secular Age, Charles Taylor argues convincingly that the contemporary liberal is a “buffered self”—some undefined thing that lies behind a variety of interpretive devices (ideologies and ways of knowing as well as behavioral roles). That empty “self” cannot know flow. It cannot fully engage with its experience because it must “buffer” that experience to maintain its very emptiness. Taylor argued, early in his career, that we tend to become what we analyze ourselves to be. It is little wonder that happiness remains elusive to those who would rather maintain their delusions of freedom and self-mastery than get down to the work (and pleasure) of living life with their fellows.

Will the full joy of experience become impossible for us in practice as well as in liberal theory? One hopes not, of course. And Murray’s book provides the means by which we can answer the false facts of technocratic liberalism with truths rooted in human nature and the natural drive among all persons to pursue happiness.

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