PBS Features Former Harvard President Arguing Govt. Should Engineer Happiness

Is it the government’s job to spread happiness? A former president of Harvard University, who was profiled on the June 2 PBS “NewsHour,” seems to think so. Derek Bok, author of The Politics of Happiness, believes the government should be in the business of manufacturing happiness.

“I think a government that tries, systematically, to relieve what causes lasting misery and emphasize what gives lasting happiness will eventually win the support of the people,” declared Bok.            

In a telling review, Sara Robinson of the wildly liberal blog Firedoglake expressed adoration for the book:

It reads like a progressive wish list — a ratification of the kind of ‘for the common good’ policies we’ve always stood for. But Bok’s approach is academic and disinterested and acutely non-ideological: he reaches these conclusions only because the preponderance of data proves (once again!) that reality has a distinctly liberal bias.

Despite the recent passage of health care overhaul, Bok claimed that some areas of the current health care system were still “under resourced and underemphasized by government policy.”

“You mean that government could step in and help people with sleep disorders?” asked PBS’s Jeffrey Brown.

“Absolutely,” responded Bok, confirming the notion that liberal ideology recognizes no limits to the power and efficacy of government. Perhaps Bok should look to the Gulf oil spill for a lesson in the limited abilities of government to relieve misery and engender happiness.

In Brown's only display of skepticism toward Bok's radical views, the PBS reporter made a half-hearted attempt to characterize the conservtive position on the role of government.

"And you’re not worried about proposing something like that at a time where there’s, you know, people are out, protesting over health care?" asked Brown, struggling to find the right words. "Government in this, government in that."

The spirit of the book–government can and should inject itself into all aspects of society to deliver happiness to the masses–reflects the elasticity and essence of liberalism. For liberal activists, the Constitution doesn’t just empower people to pursue happiness, but also empowers the government to engineer it.

A transcript of the relevant portion of the program can be found below:

PBS
NewsHour
6/2/10

7:53 p.m.

JEFFREY BROWN: In other words, for both Bok’s, the study of what makes us happy can illuminate a great deal. But our values, our relationships to each other, to our jobs, money and so on. But it can also quickly become complicated. For Derek, for example, the question becomes what exactly government could do differently to make us happier?

DEREK BOK, author of The Politics of Happiness: Let me give you an example from health care, for example. If you look at the research you find that, remarkably, a number of the unhappy things that could happen to you from a health standpoint really don’t have long-lasting effects on your unhappiness at all. You get over the loss of an arm quite quickly. But there are three health conditions that produce lasting unhappiness of a very acute kind. One is clinical depression—millions of people suffer from that. Another one is chronic pain—more millions of people. And the third one is rather unexpected is sleep disorders, and there are again millions of people who suffer from insomnia and related disorders. Now, the interesting thing from a policy point of view is that all of those three illnesses are comparatively under resourced and underemphasized by government policy.

BROWN: You mean that government could step in and help people with sleep disorders?

BOK: Absolutely.

BROWN: And you’re not worried about proposing something like that at a time where there’s, you know, people are out, protesting over health care. Government in this, government in that.

BOK: Not particularly because I think in the end the research also tells us that the thing that matters most to people is happiness. And so I think a government that tries, systematically, to relieve what causes lasting misery and emphasize what gives lasting happiness will eventually win the support of the people.
--Alex Fitzsimmons is a News Analysis intern at the Media Research Center. Click here to follow him on Twitter.