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Do You Need Big Government to Be Happy?

“Big government makes people happy, ‘free markets’ don’t,” or so argues a study, widely publicized by The Huffington Post. This study—published in 2010, but rediscovered a few weeks before the election—claims to show that capitalism and freedom make people miserable, while high taxes and big government programs brighten everyone’s day.

Dating from 2010, the study—“Assessing the Impact of the Size and Scope of Government on Human Well-Being,” by professors at Baylor, Texas A&M, and Notre Dame—proves anything but new, as it merely expands on an earlier study from 2001. Both use credible data combined in rather disquieting ways to “prove” a correlation between big government welfare states and self-reported happiness.

As with any “scientific” endeavor this controversial, the results should be taken with a grain of salt. The study includes many questionable elements: a selection of wealthy countries, the omission of an important variable that skews the data, and an unclear presentation of the methods used—merely listing numbers of correlation rather than presenting clear comparisons in their charts.

The study only includes wealthy, “first world” countries—Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Great Britain, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United States.

Most of these countries have gained great wealth due to free markets in the past, but many have recently elected to leave capitalism behind. Countries like Greece and Spain have been sheltered from the fallout of big government by bailouts from more productive countries in the EU like Germany, and the Scandinavian countries—Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark—are well known for having big governments and happy populations.

While the study claims to take into account other potential causes for happiness, such as health, church attendance, employment, marriage, and income, among others, it merely presents numbers showing correlation between large government spending and self-reported happiness. When other variables are taken into consideration, the correlation becomes fuzzier.

Another study—“The Confusing Link Between Regime Type and Happiness” by professors at the University of Iowa—illustrates the shaky nature of the first study’s conclusions. This study discovered that, depending on the variables at play, happiness can be correlated with big government or small government. In other words, it is easy to fudge the data to prove a point.

[pq]We don’t know much about what makes people happy, but culture has more of an impact than government.[/pq]

The authors of this study included social capital, which they define as “the features of social organizations, such as trust, norms, and networks that can improve the efficiency of society by facilitating coordinated action.” They took society into account, and in doing so found it much more important to happiness than government.

The two clearest findings from this second study are “that culture, in the form of social capital, is an important correlate of happiness and that the relationship between regime type [size of government] and happiness is often changed considerably when social capital is included in the equation.” In other words, we do not know much about what makes people happy, but culture has more of an impact than government. Does that really surprise us?

Furthermore, even if there is a correlation between happiness and big government, the causation may run the other way around. This second study makes the excellent point that even if the data was solid, it might only show that happy people choose big government, not that government makes you happy.

Finally, the 2010 study does not present the data in a user-friendly way. Rather than providing separate charts for different countries at different times, and demonstrating the correlation of happiness with big government with graphs or images, it merely presents numerical findings. The authors do not explain how they input the numbers, nor do they show the equations they used to reach their conclusions.

Indeed, given the arguments in the contrary study, it seems that these scholars might have intentionally avoided a clear presentation of their work. If a casual observer cannot understand their report, they could argue that he is simply not scientific enough. But controversial matters like this should not be taken on faith.

The emphasis that the second study places on society and culture seems to point to a more convincing story—one that Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute has written on extensively.

Researchers from the University of Minnesota have discovered that 48 percent—roughly half—of our happiness is determined by our genes. Another 40 percent is derived from isolated events in life—getting married, landing a great job, or getting accepted to college. This happiness, however, proves remarkably short-lived, only lasting a few months.

The remaining 12 percent lies within our control, and largely correlates to our personal and social endeavors—faith, family, community, and earning your success through meaningful work. While big government can require companies to pay a higher minimum wage, only a robust free market will provide the opportunities for poor people to earn their success.

Whatever some questionable study claims, happiness is not at odds with freedom or dependent on big government. More likely sources of happiness are work and relationships (with God and others) that are enabled by a free society.