Skip to main content

Western nations with social safety net happier

By Benjamin Radcliff, Special to CNN
updated 9:26 AM EDT, Wed September 25, 2013
The game is the same, but many of the players have changed. Congress and the president are facing off in another supreme spending showdown. This last happened in 2011, when Congress avoided a shutdown by passing a spending measure shortly after the midnight deadline hit. Who controls what happens this time? Take a look at the key players who will determine how this fight ends.<!-- -->
</br><!-- -->
</br>
-- From CNN Capitol Hill Reporter Lisa Desjardins. CNN's Deirdre Walsh and Ted Barrett contributed to this report. The game is the same, but many of the players have changed. Congress and the president are facing off in another supreme spending showdown. This last happened in 2011, when Congress avoided a shutdown by passing a spending measure shortly after the midnight deadline hit. Who controls what happens this time? Take a look at the key players who will determine how this fight ends.

-- From CNN Capitol Hill Reporter Lisa Desjardins. CNN's Deirdre Walsh and Ted Barrett contributed to this report.
HIDE CAPTION
Key players in the shutdown debate
Key players in the shutdown debate
Key players in the shutdown debate
Key players in the shutdown debate
Key players in the shutdown debate
Key players in the shutdown debate
Key players in the shutdown debate
Key players in the shutdown debate
Key players in the shutdown debate
Key players in the shutdown debate
Key players in the shutdown debate
Key players in the shutdown debate
Key players in the shutdown debate
Key players in the shutdown debate
Key players in the shutdown debate
Key players in the shutdown debate
Key players in the shutdown debate
Key players in the shutdown debate
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Benjamin Radcliff: Well-being should not be decided by the indifferent marketplace
  • Radcliff: Research shows happier people live in places with generous social safety nets
  • In Western nations, he says, the quality of life for all increases with more liberal policies
  • He says this applies to U.S. states: People happier with less insecurity and less poverty

Editor's note: Benjamin Radcliff is a professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame. He is author of the book "The Political Economy of Human Happiness."

(CNN) -- The battle in Washington over the budget is not mere partisan squabbling. What we are debating is the perennial argument between right and left: Do we as a society prefer to leave the well-being of our people to the indifference of the market economy, or do we believe that government also has an important role to play?

We are accustomed to thinking of the argument between left and right as an ideological or philosophical debate, so it has no "correct" answer. But there is an answer: We are entirely capable of knowing what policies best contribute to people leading positive and rewarding lives.

In recent decades, social scientists have been studying human happiness in the same way we study any other human attribute. Vast new multidisciplinary research has emerged around the proposition that it is possible to empirically measure the extent to which people view their lives as satisfying.

Can it be stopped? 8 answers on Obamacare and the shutdown

Benjamin Radcliff
Benjamin Radcliff

So what conditions best promote more rewarding lives?

The answer is simple and unequivocal: Happier people live in countries with a generous social safety net, or, more generally, countries whose governments "tax and spend" at higher rates, reflecting the greater range of services and protections offered by the state. (These findings come from analysis of data from the World Values Surveys for the 21 Western industrial democracies from 1981 to 2007 for my book "The Political Economy of Human Happiness." Similar findings have been reported in peer-reviewed journals like "Social Research" and the "Social Indicators Research.")

The relationship could not be stronger or clearer: However much it may pain conservatives to hear it, the "nanny state," as they disparagingly call it, works. Across the Western world, the quality of human life increases as the size of the state increases. It turns out that having a "nanny" makes life better for people. This is borne out by the U.N. 2013 "World Happiness Report," which found Denmark, Norway, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Sweden the top five happiest nations.

The answer is simple and unequivocal: Happier people live in countries with a generous social safety net.
Benjamin Radcliff

Conservatives may be equally troubled to learn that labor unions have a similar effect. Not only are workers who belong to unions happier, but the overall rate of happiness for everyone -- members and nonmembers -- increases dramatically as the percentage of workers who belong to unions grows, reflecting the louder political voice that organization gives to ordinary citizens.

All this remains true when controlling for the many other things that might also affect quality of life, such as income, age, gender, marital status, or their country's culture, history, or level of economic development. Critically, "big government" and labor unions also promote happiness not merely for those toward the bottom or middle of the income distribution, but for everyone, rich and poor, men and women, conservatives and liberals.

Government's latest shutdown showdown
Sen. Ted Cruz's war on Obamacare
Rick Santorum: 'I would be with Ted Cruz'

The same pattern emerges when looking at our states. People who live in states with higher welfare spending, more organized labor, more liberal state governments, more regulation of business, and a greater recent history of control by the Democratic Party, are all more satisfied with their lives, regardless of income, and again when controlling for other factors that are likely to affect well-being.

Zelizer: GOP strategy on shutdown courts doom

The reasons the progressive agenda promotes happiness are complex, but stated simply, the more we supplement the cold efficiency of the market with interventions that reduce poverty, insecurity, and inequality, the more we improve quality of life for everyone.

As poet and novelist Wendell Berry observed, "Rats and roaches live by competition under the laws of supply and demand; it is the privilege of human beings to live under the laws of justice and mercy." It takes no great insight to see that a world with less insecurity and less poverty, which is to say, a world more governed by justice and mercy, is one that people of all social classes will find more satisfying.

Many benefit directly from social programs or the representation of their interests by unions; others worry less than they otherwise might because they know these institutions exist when needed; and everyone benefits indirectly by living in a society which is relatively free of social pathologies, such as the higher rates of violent crime, that come with the poverty, inequality and insecurity that liberal policies help ameliorate.

The data demonstrate that this is not merely softhearted wishful thinking. Whatever else unions and liberal public policies might do, they help make the world a better place to the extent that we believe human happiness is the appropriate metric to measure such judgments.

That in turn suggests the most intellectually compelling strategy available to progressives in the battle for public opinion: Traditional New Deal policies are precisely those that best allow citizens to pursue the happiness that the founders of our republic so famously argued to be the final justification for the American experiment.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Benjamin Radcliff.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:42 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
updated 2:51 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
updated 4:13 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
updated 7:55 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
updated 12:34 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
updated 8:42 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
updated 11:00 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
updated 4:54 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
updated 5:23 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
updated 1:39 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
updated 3:20 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
updated 9:56 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
updated 4:01 PM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
updated 9:53 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
updated 5:53 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
updated 10:50 AM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
updated 4:23 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
updated 9:26 AM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
updated 9:39 AM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
updated 12:38 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT