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 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1414 GMT (2214 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1851 GMT (0251 HKT)
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT