In Pursuit: Of Happiness and Good Government by Charles Murray
Featured Book: The crux of Murray’s argument is that in order to be happy, individuals must be members of communities. Through an unerring use of examples drawn from social science, Charles 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.
Charles 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 remains as relevant today as it was in 1988. 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. (This is an excerpt from a review by Bruce Frohnen. The complete review essay may be found here.)