Capitalism and (Un)Happiness

There’s a lot I don’t like about capitalism, but there’s also a lot that I do. I see how markets1 actually promote growth and flourishing, while simultaneously producing conditions that promote numerous, generally just unlucky people from being left behind. If we’ve thoroughly disowned Social Darwinism, why do we still put up with it under its current global capitalistic guise? What are markets for, actually?

These thoughts were in the back of my mind as I read Benjamin Radcliffe’s How the political system affects happiness, which starts from the premise that the best political system is the one that makes us the happiest.2 It turns out that the welfare state makes us the happiest:

[S]ocieties led by leftist or liberal governments (also referred to as welfare states) have the highest levels of life satisfaction, controlling for other factors. Looking across countries, the more generous and universalistic the welfare state, the greater the level of human happiness, net of other factors.

In many people’s minds, a welfare state and markets are diametrically opposed. I won’t try to summarize the article’s contention that this is not neceassarily the case, but I found that this resonated:

The market has much to recommend it. It is one of humanity’s greatest achievements, providing both a greater degree of human liberty and a higher standard of living for more people than any other readily achievable form of economic production. As a system, it contributes to human happiness by successfully meeting basic human needs in vital and unique ways. But the internal logic of capitalism contains elements that are destructive to the common good.

And this really hit home:

A commodified world is one in which the vast majority of the population is dependent for their economic survival on the sale of their labour power as a commodity in the form of wage or salary work… workers as commodities are merely another factor of production, no more worthy of considerate treatment than the machines they manipulate.

If commodification is so harmful to humans, while the greater market system itself contributes so much to human society, the obvious solution is to maintain the essential features of the market while introducing public policies that serve to ‘decommodify’ workers and their families. Simply put, a society is decommodified to the extent that individuals can maintain something like a middle-class existence if they are unable to successfully sell their labour power as a commodity due to illness, old-age, disability, the need to care for a family member, the desire to improve one’s position through further education, or simply the inability to find (good) jobs when times are hard. The greater the level of decommodification, the easier it is for more people to survive without winning in the labour market.

And… well, I said I wouldn’t quote it all. Just read it. And think about how you’ll vote in your next election.

  1. Some would say free markets but I don’t believe there is any such thing other than in the minds of teenage boys reading Ayn Rand. 
  2. Because happiness is notoriously difficult to define, social scientists in the field of happiness econonmics leave it to respondents to simply respond to “All things considered, how satisfied are you with your life as a whole these days?” 


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