Monday, January 24, 2011

Opportunity vs. Outcome

One of the central tenets of the politically conservative word-view in the United States is that society (represented by government) should guarantee equal opportunity in the pursuit of happiness, but should not guarantee outcomes. This is a variant of the notion that people should not be forced to help others (along with its corollary that individuals should not be held accountable for the indirect impact of their actions on other people). It is based on the demonstrably false belief that society will best benefit from enabling the maximization of individual power.

As with biology and physics, beliefs about happiness have been tested, and as a result it is better understood. For one thing, there is a strong correlation between happiness, life expectancy, and natural resource consumption: The more we consume, the happier we are, and the longer we live. This makes intuitive sense, and should come as no surprise. What may be surprising is the fact that while life expectancy is proportional to happiness, the two grow logarithmically with consumption; as a rule of thumb, consumption must double to increase happiness by one-fifth. As a consequence, maximizing happiness can be very expensive in terms of resources; and if there is a limited amount of resources available to a society, people who are happiest will use most of them, at the expense of the majority of other people, eventually causing the society to collapse.

There is a minimum amount of food, water, shelter, and other things that people need to survive. While there is controversy around what that minimum might be and what determines it, there is no doubt that such a minimum exists. This amount of consumption will correspond to a minimum level of happiness, below which people die. Societies where there is anarchy (“every man for himself”) virtually ensure casualties due to the typically random distribution of qualities and abilities in most populations.

Fortunately for those who abhor preventable death, many societies have managed to assure that the majority of people in them are able to survive by redistributing resources and their derivatives (such as technology), and creating and maintaining basic physical and social infrastructure. This is a reasonable interpretation of “equal opportunity” which also ensures at least a minimum “outcome.”

Now, as all of humanity faces a resource crisis due to excess consumption, we are facing the possibility of having to constrain the upper level of happiness so we can live within the narrow range of consumption afforded by Nature and the maintenance of a functioning civilization – what is likely a conservative's worst nightmare. The alternative, increasing total renewable and reusable resources, may be the only way to avoid this without casualties.

See the “Limits to Happiness” diagrams on my Web site for more information.

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