Social Progress and Human Flourishing

A blog about business and economics.
Feb. 23 2012 9:54 AM

Social Progress and Human Flourishing

After a long time when taking a very bleak view of the past generation's worth of change in American life was coded as a "left-wing" perspective, I've been excited to see Charles Murray, David Brooks, and Ross Douthat bring conservative declinism back into vogue. I'm not a declist personally, and I feel much more comfortable with things coded this way around. So as you know, my view is that the crisis in working class America is largely not a crisis at all (with the proviso, of course, that we're three years into a short-term labor market crisis, it's the narrative of generational decline that I dispute) to which Douthat replies:

If our only goals are some form of continued growth and a relative social stability, then the new social order isn’t necessarily a threat to progress. But if our goals are human happiness and human flourishing and a life well lived, then the future Yglesias is welcoming seems considerably darker.

In part this is necessarily going to be a disagreement about values. If you're an observant Catholic, there's no denying that the economic empowerment of women and the growing leisure of men is leading to lifestyles that are less in accordance with the Pope's views of what constitutes human flourishing. But how about happiness? I was hoping to close this off with a blockbuster link conclusively demonstrating that Americans are happier than ever. What I came up with instead is Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers "The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness" (PDF) which shows that happiness is basically flat over this period. We see neither a crisis of human flourishing nor a surge in flourishing. But the crisis masks an interesting gender divergence. Men—who've allegedly borne the brunt of the alleged crisis—are actually happier than ever, but our increased bliss has been accompanied by a decline in reported subjective well-being of American women, despite the fact that objective measure indicate that women are better off then in Mad Men days and that women report believing that women are better-off than they used to be.

That's an . . . interesting result. But however you interpret it, it doesn't offer evidence for the existence of a systematic crisis of happiness or subjective well-being. One move open to social conservatives is to simply take the Stevenson/Wolfers result at face value and argue that women across the western world are suffering from a massive bout of false consciousness and would actually be better off if their social and economic opportunities were re-curtailed, but I'm going to vote "no" on that one and just stick with the observation that men on the whole don't say they're sadder than they used to be.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.