Freedom in Mind

Chapter 5
The Horrors of Happiness

"I could never be happy in slavery."

Everybody says that. You can't argue with it. But maybe you should ask back, "Could you be happy free?"

Free is free to be happy—and free to be miserable.

Free is free to succeed—and free to fail.

Free is free to decide—and free to blunder.

Free is free to prosper—and free to struggle.

Free is free to win—and free to lose.

Freedom is not the presence of aid and comfort, but the absence of coercion. In a free society your need of aid and comfort would have to be satisfied voluntarily, by people who freely choose to do that. In the absence of coercion, the government could not steal from you or for you.

When reminded of this obvious fact, most people outwardly agree, and inwardly wonder what's so bad about a little coercion. If government takes money for a good cause, that can't be stealing! Who says freedom has to be the complete absence of coercion? Why can't freedom be a relative absence of coercion?

Relative to what? The only way to measure coercion is to decide how much of it you personally will tolerate. To put that the other way, you have to decide how much freedom is enough.

When the boss says, "You have to work overtime," you might reply, "I'm not your slave! I'll decide." When the government says, "You have to work to pay us," that reply won't work. If you defy the boss, he can fire you. If you defy the government, it can kill you. So it seems odd to call the boss a slaver and the government a savior.

Many people do this odd thing as a matter of course, because they think freedom could be a happy condition, but then they feel that happiness would be too damn much trouble.

What if my happiness requires that others help me, whether they want to or not? What if it requires that others care for my aged parents, want to or not? What if it requires that others educate my children? If happiness means taking responsibility for everything, all by myself, then to hell with it. That's not happiness; that's horror. I'd be happier running slaves. Or, to put it honestly, I'd be happier as a slave.

Happiness becomes horror when you get it backwards, and define happiness not as success in living, but as success in getting. It's the lottery theory of happiness. Happiness is your ship coming in, with your soul mate aboard.

If the lottery fails, that leads to the demand theory of happiness. Success consists of getting your demands heard. If nobody listens, then to get happiness, you have to make it or take it. Making it means work. The demand theory of happiness excludes working, so that leaves taking. If happiness consists of looting, then it is a horror indeed.

The demand theory of happiness leads to the zero-sum theory of happiness. There's a fixed amount of happiness around, so if you get more of it, I get less of it. If you win, I lose. More money for you means less money for me. More emotional satisfaction for you means less for me. If you succeed in finding the perfect mate, there's one less prospect for me. If I see happiness around me, it must be at my expense.

Happiness as envy is horror indeed. Recoiling from envy leads to the comparison theory of happiness. I must be happy, because look how much better I get along than those characters in the soap opera, or those squabbling neighbors, or those brainless celebrities. Just because people claim to be happy, I don't know that they are.

I don't necessarily know if I myself am happy. I might be happy to get a job, or a good grade, or a free meal; but what I mean by happiness is more than that. To be happy in the full sense, I need success in the full sense: not just prosperity but also peace of mind, confidence, and fulfillment—more than money can measure.

Do I measure my happiness the same way I measure yours? Clearly not, since I cannot read your mind. All I can do is ask, and then judge the credibility of your answer. I have no way of knowing what gives you peace of mind, or emotional fulfillment; I can only think what should do that. I can use introspection only on myself.

To judge how happy my own mental state is, I need a standard for comparison. To measure my happiness is to measure it against a standard. The comparison theory of happiness makes other people the standard—any other people. That would make sense only if happiness were communal: a condition not of individuals but of groups.

If happiness is a group thing, then what makes me presume to decide? It's up to the group: the group decides if I am happy. Happiness become successful living of a group, not an individual. An individual can feel fear about being sacrificed for the good of the group, but that fear is not unhappiness unless the group says so.

Keep reasoning along this line, and there will come a point where you begin to notice that happiness as group welfare is all horror. It is the tribal theory of happiness: you don't matter, only the tribe matters. You have no freedom; you are a slave of the tribe. Slavery makes you happy, because the tribe says so.

If you wonder why so many are willing to give up personal happiness for the sake of the community, remember the joys of slavery. One who gives up on personal happiness might as well submit to slavery under a nicer name. If you are a faithful servant of the community, then for its own good, the community has to take care of you. If your service to others does them more harm than good, so what? It is not your fault; it is the fault of those you serve. The seduction of slavery is that, when you are a slave, nothing is your fault.

Eventually, you might decide that happiness is only meaningful if it is personal. A happy life is a successful individual life. Happiness is selfish. I cannot call my life successful unless it is my life, lived according to my thoughts, using my methods. So I reject other lives as a standard for happiness, and look for an objective standard. An objective standard could be used by me to measure my own happiness, and by you to measure your own happiness, and by both of us to measure the likelihood that our friends might be happy.

It sounds like a paradox: a universal standard applicable only individually. However, if it is a paradox, it is a very common one. No two men are identical, yet they are all called men. No two women are identical, yet they are all called women. No two humans are identical, yet we are all called humans. Men differ greatly from women, yet there is something essential they have in common, which includes them in the range referred to as mankind.

Aha! To find our standard of happiness, we can look for something essential to man, the denial of which will make happiness impossible, and the fulfillment of which will make happiness likely. Aristotle gave us what we need when he defined man as "the rational animal".

Happiness as successful living is not available to any animal but man, because it is a thought. For man, the method of living successfully is thinking. Evaluating the success of your life is a thought process. Measuring your life against a standard is a thought process. The standard for successful living is clear thinking.

Think of that business genius you heard about, whose personal life is a shambles. At work, his thinking is clear, decisive, original. At home it is confused and cliched. Work is a happy place, home a miserable place. A workaholic is born.

If this work genius would apply work skills to personal life, it would go like this: "When I feel miserable at home, then the standard of happiness tells me that I am not thinking successfully about it. I need to analyze my home life, evaluate it, and then act to correct whatever is wrong."

Even a genius cannot think himself into happiness without acting on his thoughts. Man the rational animal is not man the rational ruminator, but man the rational doer. The standard of happiness must include freedom to act. To be happy is to have the ability to figure out what will improve your rational life, and to have the freedom to do what you decide, and then to feel the emotional reward of succeeding.

The question that measures progress toward happiness is, "Do I have the ability to direct my effort rationally, and the freedom to apply my rational effort?" The standard tells me that to increase my happiness, I need to improve my reasoning power, increase my effort, and secure my freedom.

Those are the three great horrors of happiness: reason, effort, and freedom.

The standard is easy to apply to my neighbor. If he makes rational decisions, and is free to act on them, then the likelihood of his being happy is great. If he substitutes feelings for thoughts, then free or not, he's got little chance for happiness. If he makes good decisions, but is not free to carry them out, then he has no chance for happiness.

Now I apply the standard to myself. Suddenly, I'm in trouble. My neighbor is smarter. Does that mean he can be happier? That's not fair. He's more energetic; he loves effort. I get tired. Does that make him happier? It's not fair. He should not be free to always win over me, and I should not be free to blunder into misery. This idea of happiness might be all right for him, but it's a horror for me.

Here is how I made happiness into horror: I assumed that being smart is something you just are, that can't be learned. I assumed that effort is something mysterious that some have more of, some less. I assumed that freedom is the friend of some, and the enemy of others.

I am wrong about the neighbor. His thinking makes his happiness, but not mine. It's not how fast I can think, but how reliably. Thinking is not a mystery; it can be improved.

I am wrong about effort. Life as self-sustained action consists entirely of effort. It is "too much effort" to wash the dishes only because I'd rather put the effort into something more fun.

I am wrong about freedom. It is not the presence of aid and comfort, but the absence of coercion. It is not some optional grant of privilege, but an inescapable prerequisite of happiness. The best plan ever for the biggest success ever will go nowhere without freedom to put the plan into operation.

Some people never learn how to make reason work for them, so they hate it. Because they hate reason, their efforts go awry, so they hate effort. Because they hate effort, freedom is useless to them, so they disdain it. Hating the standard makes them horrified of happiness, so they hate it. When they realize that every increase in coercion causes a decrease in happiness, they have found their life's work: destroying freedom by first one and then another tiny increase in coercion.

You meet them every day. They announce themselves. "Happiness?" they say. "Happiness is overrated. It's not that important. It's selfish. A world where all anybody wanted was to be happy—that would be a horrible world."

If everybody wanted happiness, then everybody would want thinking ability and freedom. They would be careful to separate thoughts from feelings. They would be intolerant of government coercion. They would get rid of dependence in favor of self-reliance. They would support the principle on which our country was founded: each man pursues his own happiness in his own way. They would eliminate involuntary servitude, whether called "slavery", or "conscription", or "service", or "duty" or "taxes", or "the favor you owe me".

But wait! What about the safety net? You must have a safety net for those who get sick, old, or unfit for the struggle. You must have it by coercion if necessary.

If everybody wanted happiness, why would coercion be necessary? Rational cooperation makes people rich. There is no problem providing insurance against illness and age and misfortune. When happiness haters insist on the coercive "safety net", they are pulling a fast one by pretending that coercion works better than cooperation. They are pretending that men cooperate but have no concern for the welfare of their partners. They are advancing the absurd idea that we should vote to have charity money stolen from us, instead of just giving it to charity.

For happiness haters, coercion does two things: it gives more power to them, and less freedom to you. Coercion puts a ceiling on your chances for happiness, and then keeps lowering the ceiling. It protects you from the horrors of happiness by getting rid of a prerequisite of happiness: freedom.

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