Welfare and the Pursuit of Happiness

This is an excerpt from an essay I’ve written in 1988 for a political theory seminar at Munich’s Ludwig-Maximilians-University. The whole thesis is 30 pages and I surely will not bore you with all of that. That means, however, I will have to leave out the many quotes and make it an abstract.

I reanimated the essay in the first place, because there is such a gap between how we Europeans feel about public welfare and the way it’s almost demonized by many Americans. The current discussion about health care in the US obviously stresses the discrepancy.

The starting point for the analysis was looking at two expressions. “Welfare” and “The Pursuit of Happiness.” Both terms play a major role in the French and the American revolutions. How come they mean such different things?

The French Revolution was sparked by unbearable social injustice. People were starving and the aristocracy wallowed in pleasures. Here the writings of the enlightenment fell on fertile ground. And the call for reform grew louder and louder but in the end the monarchy wasn’t reforming quickly enough, if it ever was reformable at all. The Revolution brought on the first test of the  enlightenment’s ideas practical merits.

The concepts of welfare and happiness had merged increasingly in the political theories of the 18th century in France. Individual happiness was soon considered equal to the liberty of gaining property and thus prosperity. Finally there grew an understanding that those, who were not capable of supporting themselves needed to be provided with work, or when unable to work, needed to be alimented.

Jean Jacques Rousseau the protagonist of  happiness as the foundation of  any society asked for the promotion of general happiness by ensuring equality not only in rights but in “indulgencies,” too. For him, happiness was an emotional phenomenon which couldn’t be codified but he defined the happiness of a society as the sum of the happiness of  her individuals. So he called on the rulers to “Make the people happy!” Property as a means to happiness was for him an unavoidable fact, but on the other hand, the root to all evil.

While these and other theories didn’t require a change in regime yet — Necker and Turgot two finance ministers of Louis XVI tried some reform of the monarchy partly along those lines — Antoine Marquis de Condorcet went a step further. He already propagated a form of insurance, designed to protect workers from misery. And he demanded free of charge public schooling to fight the inequality in education which was at the root of  the poverty of the masses.

The French pre-revolutionary society was still an agrarian feudal system and thus wealth was equal to the possession of land. So, to cure the moral consequences of inequality, more even-handedness of the distribution of property was necessary. While Rousseau and Montesquieu were still focusing on allaying the consequences of the existing system, the rather obscure French philosopher Abbé Morelly broke entirely with it. No one was to own more than he needed and everybody was to be employed and alimented by the state.  Education had to be aimed at erasing the concept of individual property.

Welfare and well-being were ultimately defined as economic well-being and thus only the elimination of social inequality would be the road to general happiness.

Consequentially the Declaration of  the Rights of Man and Citizen (1789) and the French Constitution of 1791 showed provisions which accepted the social responsibilities of the state. Soon in 1793 a much more radical constitution indicated the shifts in power from the moderate Montagnards to the more radical Jacobins. Society now was deemed responsible for not only moderating inequality but for actively disposing of it.  Two years later, however, after the fall of the Sans Culottes the constitution of 1795 did away with all that and marked temporarily the end of social justice as a foundation of society.

But the idea of economic equality never went away again. Most Europeans cherish the security a welfare state (no it is not necessarily a cuss-word here) provides.

The situation in North America was different. While a quite densely populated France couldn’t provide for it’s people anymore, a whole continent was at the disposal of the American pioneer settlers, to explore and exploit.

The political writings of American revolutionaries work much more along the line of lex naturalis. They based their political theories on the assumption that man surrenders a certain amount of liberties to a civil government in exchange of protection against the possible cruelties of life. As the “state of nature” in which no one is subject to anybody is the state of perfect liberty and independence, the assignation of parts of those liberties forms a contract. The English King had broken his contract and thus gave Americans the right to rebel. The American Revolution was much more a fight for political liberty than a struggle for economic equality and focused on the premise that being given the liberty to attain wealth and the protection of property  is in itself sufficient to ensure equal chances for success. The Pursuit of Happiness is part of man’s natural make-up and so the helping hand of a civil government is not called for.

America today, however is not the America of the pioneers. The country is densely populated and the wealth the country has to give has already been distributed a long time ago. Not unlike in France in the 18th century there is an upper class, almost aristocratic in its demeanor, and a dwindling middle class on the verge of losing their ability to fare for themselves. And there are a huge number of poor which are virtually excluded from the American Dream.

What do you think? Is it time to rethink the ideas of the French philosophers and put those to the test?

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12 thoughts on “Welfare and the Pursuit of Happiness

  1. Excellent piece of work, Ev. The American idea of the Pursuit of Happiness was indeed founded in political and economic gain. Nor has it really changed all that much. The problem is, that idea is unsustainable. First come, first served and the devil take the hindmost has never resulted in a culture, country or society that has not collapsed under its own avarice.

    Classed societies are self defeating. The privileged don’t want to work and don’t want to pay to have work done.

  2. Terrific post EV. I wonder how the French Revolution resulted in a fiercely secular society, where religion is competely remved from the political debate: no headscarves, no obvious displays of faith in government.

    I know that probably Thomas Paine had some influence in that story. My interest is in how religion and the Puritan/Protestant seeking-money-can-be-holy ethic became an acceptable interpretation of Christianity and therefore the foundation rock of the ‘your-on-your-own-ership’ society which America clearly is.

  3. Gee, Ev, you think that America was built on a Puritan (I prefer Calvinistic) ethic for public consumption? Even though this world means nothing in regards to the hereafter, one should strive to be a working productive member of society? I wonder who benefited the most from the diligent labor of the average American citizen?

    And I wonder how many neurosis and inhibitions were built into the average working joe over the same issue? Rather odd that these concepts have little to no bearing on the wealthy elite. Marx was closer to right than anyone ever gave him credit for.

    • med, Marx was spot on in his analysis, imho. His followers made a mess of the remedy, however.

      I have nothing against being a working productive member of society, but I’d like to see those who are unable to be just that not being left out to fare for themselves. It’s all about being a member of the society and I think for this society it is productive too, if you take care of the needy. One of the articles in the French constitution of 1793 gave the full rights of citizenship not only to those who worked and paid taxes, but to those who supported another citzen, too. It’s all about being an asset to society and I rather like that.

  4. What a bunch of commies. Believing people are people without a credit card. You both realize you can go to hell for that kind of thinking? Unless, of course, Jeebus was right.

    The church goers get their undies in a wad when someone points out that he was the first Marxist.

    • med, because he said this?

      Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

      Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

      Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth.

      Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

      Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.

      Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

      Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.

      Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

      Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me.

      Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

      Critters won’t go to hell. Most of us meet the requirements for being blessed even if we don’t go to church. The poor in spirit fits me perfectly ;)

  5. Ev, I’m not much for 2,000 year old mythology, even when it sort of makes sense.

    Boil it down to we are all the same and if we trash the earth, we all suffer. We don’t need promises of heaven when we already have a heaven right here. Providing we don’t blow it.

    We don’t need gods or promises of heaven, we need all of us, right here, right now. Everything else is human ego.

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