Skip to main content

Western nations with social safety net happier

By Benjamin Radcliff, Special to CNN
September 25, 2013 -- Updated 1326 GMT (2126 HKT)
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
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1947 GMT (0347 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Jimmy Carter's message about the need to restore trust in public officials is a vital one, decades after the now 90-year-old he first voiced it
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2156 GMT (0556 HKT)
Ford Vox says mistakes and missed opportunities along the line to a diagnosis of Ebola in a Liberian man have put Dallas residents at risk of fatal infection
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2221 GMT (0621 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz says California is trying, but its law requiring step-by-step consent is just not the way hot and heavy sex proceeds on college campuses
October 2, 2014 -- Updated 0217 GMT (1017 HKT)
Mike Downey says long-suffering fans, waiting for good playoff news since 1985, finally get something to cheer about
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2139 GMT (0539 HKT)
Steve Israel saysJohn Boehner's Congress and the tea party will be remembered for shutting down government one year ago
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1856 GMT (0256 HKT)
Yep. You read the headline right, says Peter Bergen, writing on the new government that stresses national unity
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Hong Kong's pro-democracy demonstrators are but the latest freedom group to be abandoned by the Obama administration, says Mike Gonzalez
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1423 GMT (2223 HKT)
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1455 GMT (2255 HKT)
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 2303 GMT (0703 HKT)
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1419 GMT (2219 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1859 GMT (0259 HKT)
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
September 27, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1332 GMT (2132 HKT)
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1233 GMT (2033 HKT)
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
September 23, 2014 -- Updated 2137 GMT (0537 HKT)
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1658 GMT (0058 HKT)
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
September 24, 2014 -- Updated 0910 GMT (1710 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT