Can the Economy be Organized around Happiness?

My sophomore year of undergrad, sitting in a spring-semester honors course on “Ethics,” I was torn between watching squirrels compete against one another for hidden spoils buried the fall before and listening to my professor lecture on Karl Marx. I had taken an introduction to economics as an incoming freshman and that single course seemed sufficient to justify zoning out on the lecture. My professor could not define certain fundamental terms necessary to any economic argument. But her final appeal grabbed my attention for its sheer brazenness: “why can’t we organize the economy around happiness?”

My experience with formal economics is limited to two institutional departments (Ohio Wesleyan University, and the University of Chicago; although the latter is arguably the standard-bearer of economic study in the United States) and brief flirtations with Milton Friedman, Joseph Stiglitz, and a handful of contemporary public scholars. I participated in many interesting discussions with economic majors as an undergraduate. All that said, I am no economist. But I feel comfortable enough claiming that Economic study is more comfortable embracing its own, self-justifying ideology than social sciences like Anthropology and Sociology. “Radical” economists are usually political theorists with different numbers; economists proper are merely centrist-liberals advocating for more debt and different labor practices or neoliberals regurgitating, with more nuance, what Friedman already proclaimed. Overall, Economics is the study of “economies” which anymore is a euphemism for production and growth.

Nonetheless, to claim that we can organize the economy around happiness seemed entirely outrageous. How could we alter the fundamentals of supply and demand, rethink the elasticity of goods, and manipulate international trade for the sake of some conception of “happiness” that would always be subjective? I understood that labor practices can be altered and, to an extent, businesses could be more concerned with the well-being of employees. But an emphasis on labor was not my professor’s point; she wanted us to exchange a focus on production for an emphasis on satisfaction.

Reflecting six years out, the statement still stays with me. Only now I think my professor gestured toward something more complex.

The premises of the social sciences presume certain epistemic and ontological terms that are not necessarily “right.” Capitalism is arbitrarily demarcated from politics, society, education, and the other spheres of western liberal democracy. Obviously there are nuances like “political economy” and anthropological inquiries into microeconomics. But the separation of Capitalism from other spheres (and who decided such spheres are separate in the first place?) removes it from the same criticisms on philosophical anthropology that the academy has offered against certain kinds of political theory and continental philosophy. Capitalism assumes that we are all individual subjects in competition with one another making rational (according to our situational awareness) decisions to advance our own self-ends. What if we aren’t in competition? How do we expand to consider the differences between those who define the world competitively and those who imagine it to be other things? But Capitalism also assumes certain other fundamentals: a division between the public and private that is largely a project of Western nation-states and by no means essentially true to human history; a concept of private property and ownership which themselves are values that could be exchanged for different corollaries like responsibility and stewardship; and a linear scheme of historical time easily dividable into hours and seconds that encourages a scheme of measurement independent of our distinct bodily needs for sleep and emotional recuperation. When we look outside of what is properly considered “economic” toward the assumptions about the world Capitalism assumes and anchors itself upon, we can locate variables adjustable toward ends other than production.

In other words, Capitalism is only about production if we accept the limits Capitalism has established for itself as necessarily true for all economic thinking. In this respect, to rethink the economy around happiness is simply to say that we should rethink our own individual and intersubjective relationships to those facets of the world we currently describe by the epistemic terms of Capitalism: “property,” “competition,” “value,” and like. When we consider that our relationship to something as simple as the second-hand of a clock is deeply economic and not necessarily essential to living within the world, we open new possibilities for rethinking economic ends.

I by no means have the ability or background to go about proposing conceptual schemes alternative to something as wide-ranging as Capitalism (and nor am I here advocating for Communism or Socialism, even though both might have conceptual strategies worth considering). Nonetheless, I’m reminded that those facts of our everyday life that we consider to be absolute are far from determined.

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