In scientific culture, every subject is accepted as a legitimate one for quantifiable study, including subjects no wise man would venture to approach in such a manner. Hence academic researchers, boldly rushing in where mystics and poets fear to tread, feel encouraged to establish themselves as experts in matters to which the concept of expertise does not apply. I have lately learned, for instance, that a field of socioeconomic inquiry known as “happiness studies” has been recognized for decades. Happiness experts claim to have discovered, over the past 30 years, what strikes me as one of those findings one might call startling, were it not for the fact of its being instantly confirmable at the instinctive level of human awareness. The discovery is that we affluent Westerners today enjoy a level of “happiness” no higher than that of the hunter-gatherers from whom we are anciently descended. Nor, it seems, are we “happier” than our less-successful neighbors in the contemporary world.
“Happiness” is one of those infinitely subjective concepts, like “sadness” or “love,” impossible to measure owing to its indefinite, highly personal, and frequently unconscious nature. Also the more subtle symptoms of “happiness” and “unhappiness” are elusive, often contradictory, difficult or impossible to read. Less so are the signs of discontent—restlessness, impatience, irritability, want of concentration—that are pretty much common to all of us. The most conscientious daily reader of the New York Times is in no position accurately to guess the ratio between happy and unhappy people in the world today. He would be entirely justified, however, in estimating the ratio of discontented to contented people to be around 90:10, and perhaps a good deal higher.
Economists (unlike liberal moralists) are fond of reminding us that the kings and queens of old, including Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, were deprived of the basic comforts that all but the poorest of the Western poor consider their due in modern consumerist society. Indeed, polls indicate that even in the present continuing recession the majority of Americans are neither unhappy with their lives nor without hope for the future, although they do appear to have lowered their expectations in recent years. The same is probably true for most Europeans, including the Italians—though not the Greeks, the Spanish, the Portuguese, and the Cypriots. However, for an index of the level of discontent throughout the Western world, one must look to polls of a different kind: the periodic election results posted by the Western democracies, and statistics recording the longevity of Western democratic governments in recent times.
The more democratic politicians promise the voters, the more disillusioned the electorate naturally becomes with them, once they have been in office for a while. In 2008, Barack Obama pledged to accomplish nothing less than the political transformation and reconciliation of American society. (Obama doesn’t grasp, or pretends not to, Schumpeter’s insight that politics exists for the sake of political parties, not the other way around, as the purpose of General Mills is to make money, not to feed people.) In 2012, having abandoned bipartisanship, he promised to rescue the country from the irresponsibility of the opposition party. Half a year after the President’s reelection by a respectable, if not impressive, margin, the disastrous first four months of Obama’s second administration have cost him the support of the Democratic political establishment that disliked and distrusted him from the start, and of the press that has fawned over him for a full decade now and that he so badly needs in his continuing war with the House Republicans. Yet Obama’s political difficulties are equaled—they may even by surpassed—by the travails of M. le Président François Hollande of France. Hollande was sent to the Élysée Palace a year ago after the country turned on Nicolas Sarkozy and his once-popular center-right government in a similar, though more protracted, fit of disenchantment. Today, Hollande’s approval ratings are lower (26 percent) than those of any of his predecessors, reflecting public disapproval with his socialist government so intense that, should Hollande go, he may well take with him the French Fifth Republic. Across the Channel, Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative-Liberal Democratic coalition, elected only three years past in a popular reaction against Gordon Brown’s Labour government, finds itself facing an electorate impatient with the slower than expected success of the austere economic program it voted for in 2010 in reducing “redundancies,” as the British say, and restoring economic growth. The government may not survive until the general election scheduled for 2015. In Germany, the greatest economic power in Europe, President Angela Merkel experiences increasingly rough sailing, despite her resolute adherence to economic austerity at home and throughout the eurozone. Finally, the economic chaos prevalent among the zone’s southern members is naturally mirrored by political chaos produced by their electorates’ inability to decide what they want of their political systems and their refusal to allow them the time and opportunity to accomplish whatever it is they do want. Italy’s political future presently depends on an aged professional politician, a popular entertainer named for a fiddling insect, and an aging satyr known for straddling young women and girls as relentlessly as he does the country’s political life and the Italian communications industry. For the rest, it hardly seems to matter what political party is in “power” in Spain or Greece; whichever one it is, and there are increasingly more of them, the Spanish and the Greeks demand from them what they cannot possibly deliver: solutions produced by mutually contradictory policies. Naturally, the politicians will not state this obvious but popularly intolerable fact, knowing that, were they to address the voters with such unprecedented honesty, they would be booted from office in the next election.
Contented people, like well-brought-up and well-educated children, are not always demanding—noisily—some thing diametrically opposed to whatever they happen to have at the moment. Spoiled, unrealistic, and ignorant people are, and here we may see how the shapers of modern societies are having to suffer the consequences of the social and intellectual laxity they have long encouraged, not least by permitting history as a required course to be dropped from the curriculum at every level of academic instruction. Rulers and politicians of all periods, representing nearly every form of government, have habitually distrusted, when they did not positively fear, a substantial degree of political sophistication on the part of the ruled. During a relatively brief period, when Western democracy was fresh, vigorous, and confident, like the United States in her youthful republican, antebellum form, democratic polity was based on the assumption that an educated and politically engaged citizenry is the indispensable basis of democratic government. But as the former republics transformed themselves into mass pseudodemocracies, political establishments gradually reverted to the monarchical prejudices of an earlier age. Today, Western politicians, viewing the people they must please on election day with increasing contempt, impatience, and alarm, prefer that the voters should learn as little as possible about the issues of the day and the course of public affairs. They ignore the fact that citizens with a firm and comprehensive grasp of history have also a greater hold on reality than those who lack such a grasp. As educated realists, they have a greater patience with their governmental system, understanding the necessary constraints on political action, the proper limits of government, and, as Dr. Johnson wrote,
How small of all that human hearts endure,
That part which laws or kings can cause or cure.
Still to ourselves in every place consign’d,
Our own felicity we make or find . . .
Men’s susceptibility to unrealistic promises and expectations has always served demagogues as powerfully in their ascent as it has in precipitating their fall. The mass man, as Ortega recognized, is really a spoiled child—corrupted in part by the popular politicians eager to spare the rod lest the voters should seize it and beat them with it at the next election. As of course they do, when responsible representatives honestly and honorably refuse to act on their constituents’ whims and disgruntlement when irresponsible promises remain unfulfilled after a few short years, or even months. In America, elections have handed the White House to the opposition after a couple of electoral cycles, the House of Representatives every other one. Even when one makes allowance for the undetermined direction, unsure intentions, fecklessness, dishonesty, cowardice, and general incapacity of nearly every presidential administration since Washington’s, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that American voters don’t know what they want from their elected representatives, and that the reason they don’t know it is that they don’t know anything much about history, government, and the real world the politicians work hard to hide from them. True enough, the vast majority of modern democratic politicians, having been elected from the public body by fellow members of that body, don’t know much, either.
Yet an ignorance of history and the want of formal learning is really of secondary importance here. Ultimately, modern men are discontented because they don’t know what contentment is, or what brings contentment. The failure is less an intellectual than a spiritual one, although of course the intellectual and the spiritual are closely related. Gregory Clark, in his excellent and highly original book A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World (2007), suggests that, in the late Malthusian era of strivers before 1800, contented people died out, and their contentment genes perished with them. Genetically speaking, we moderns in the Western world are condemned to perpetual discontentment. Perhaps that is so. What does appear to be true is that chronic discontentment encourages narrowly material ambitions, which in turn are conducive to an empirically materialist philosophy. Mr. Clark suspects that we are no happier than our ancestors of 1800, around the start of the Industrial Revolution. No happier, perhaps, because discontented still after two centuries of previously unimagined affluence that has uncoupled the material world from the spiritual one and given birth to a powerful antitheology postulating the death of God? Can the majority of men live contented—humanly fulfilled—lives in the belief that all that matter in life are the annual GDP and the monthly employment statistics, and that death means the end of everything? The answer seems to be no.