Do Liberal Policies Make People Happier?


Photo: DonkeyHotey

Though I’m loathe to wade into any discussion of politics in a public forum—and at the risk of earning the ire of conservatives—I want to explore in this post an argument put forth by Professor Benjamin Radcliff in his new book The Political Economy of Human Happiness that policies typically associated with the political left lead to greater happiness for citizens than policies typically associated with the political right.

I recognize this is an inflammatory thesis, so let me begin by stating that I both endorse and oppose policies on both sides of the aisle. I therefore consider myself neither a Democrat nor a Republican but a true independent. That is to say, I don’t have a horse in any political race or a bias for or against any particular policy that arises from an emotional connection to either party. I’m interested in data. If a policy can be studied and shown to have particular effects that are beneficial, then I support it.

The outline of Radcliff’s book presents a carefully constructed argument. Chapter 1 “examines the historical and philosophical origins of the enduring conflict between competing ideological prescriptions for improving the quality of human life.” Chapter 2 “examines more closely the nature of the market and its relationship to democracy.” Chapter 3 “examines the abstract intellectual and theoretical disputes between the Left and the Right about which type of policies best contribute to human happiness.” Chapter 4 “provides an introduction to the scientific study of happiness.” Chapters 5 and 6 then “test hypotheses about the effects on well-being of the political programs of the Left and Right using real world data on the industrial democracies of Western Europe, North America, and the Pacific.” Chapter 5 in particular “considers the fundamental issue of whether ‘big government’ contributes to, or detracts from, the quality of human life.” Chapter 7 then “completes the empirical analysis of the political determinants of life satisfaction by shifting…to a case study of the United States.” Chapter 8 concludes the book “with an appraisal of the implications of the empirical findings for both our theoretical understanding of subjective well-being and the perennial debate between Left and Right.”

Radcliff’s conclusions are straightforward:

  1. “Big government” is more conducive to human well-being.
  2. The quality of human life improves as the free market is more regulated.
  3. The benefit of increased happiness is enjoyed by citizens of all socioeconomic statuses in countries with bigger government.

In sum, Radcliff argues, “people are happier in states whose government has in recent decades tended to be controlled by the Democratic Party, in that such control has allowed for the establishment of the progressive public policy regimes that are the most consistent with human flourishing.”

What evidence does he have to support his claim that big government leads to more happiness than does small government (as Radcliff’s book is well-referenced, I’ll refer readers interested in the studies that support his claims to his book and won’t reproduce them here)? First, Radcliff defines what he means by big government—namely a government: 1) that redistributes income to a politically determined group (the “welfare state”), 2) whose spending on public concerns beyond income redistribution (e.g., road maintenance, education, healthcare) is large, and 3) which taxes its citizens heavily.

He then discusses the evidence showing that the welfare state is effective at “improving the material conditions of life” and reducing poverty. This is important, he argues, because by reducing poverty, citizens are to some degree freed from constant worry over the future and what he calls the “rational obsession with the self.” This results in an enlargement of social relationships and a decline in rates of depression. Importantly, Radcliff argues, the welfare state not only reduces poverty but also—and perhaps even more importantly—the fear of poverty. Ultimately, and not surprisingly, Radcliff argues that the welfare state is a great reducer of anxiety (at least among the lower socioeconomic classes), which itself is a great impediment to happiness.

Next, Radcliff argues that evidence exists to show that the welfare state also reduces crime and, again, the fear of crime, both of which likely function independently to increase the well-being of all citizens. He argues also that the welfare state reduces the propensity of poor citizens to exhibit a decay in adherence to social norms in general, which increases the happiness of both the poor and all those who associate with them. Finally, Radcliff argues that the welfare state increases a sense of agency, or autonomy, which studies suggest is crucial to happiness.

But how does the welfare state increase its citizens’ sense of agency, especially when one could argue certain programs incentivize citizens to remain dependent on government and therefore would reduce their sense of agency? Radcliff argues that an effective welfare state spends money to “decommodify” members of the work force—that is, the effect it has of making people feel less like the commodities they are (e.g., labor). This, he suggests, is what directly increases their sense of security and agency, and he presents good data that argues that this is, indeed, what happens.

He looks also then at the total amount of governmental spending as a fraction of GDP as well as the share of GDP that a government collects as taxes to round out three measures of “big government” that he compares against data on life satisfaction of citizens from numerous countries across the globe. He further controls for variables that the psychology literature has suggested influence life satisfaction. While his statistical methods lie beyond the scope of this post, his conclusions are straightforward: the degree of decommodification is strongly associated with levels of life satisfaction, as is net level of governmental spending and level of taxation.

In fact, he suggests that the effects of decommodification on life satisfaction dwarf the effects of variables traditionally believed to be the most influential (marriage and avoidance of unemployment, to name just two). Even more surprising is that statistically speaking the effects of decommodification on life satisfaction are nearly as great for wealthy citizens as for poor ones.

His data, however, only show an association between liberal policies and greater well-being of a country’s citizens. Could the direction of causality be opposite to what he argues? That is, are people who are happier to start with more inclined to be liberal and thus create big government? He answers this question by citing other research (his own) that suggests greater well-being doesn’t foster support for more liberal policies. In fact, it seems other research suggests the opposite, that happier people tend to be more conservative, even when controlling for income! (It’s a neat irony if true: you’re more likely to be happy both if you live in a welfare state and yet disagree with that state’s policies.)

Do liberal policies, then, make a country’s citizens happier than conservative policies? I think with regard to the specific policies Radcliff analyzes, there exists a good chance they do. However, it seems quite hard for me to imagine such policies are the sole, or even main, determinants of well-being. The notion that agency, or autonomy, is important—and perhaps even primary—to happiness is strongly supported by the psychological literature. But is decommodification the main determinant of agency? This is far from proven. Further, can people be happy in states whose government is “small”? It seems the answer is certainly yes. On the other hand, if Radcliff’s thesis is to be believed, all other things being equal, it just might be easier to be happy in a state that—in some ways, at least—leans to the left.

19 comments to Do Liberal Policies Make People Happier?

  • Jane

    It seems entirely human to enjoy the benefits of the liberal state while resenting paying high taxes, thus disagreeing with the government’s policies. Not having to spend a great deal of money, time, and mental stress on such basic needs as health care and higher education would be a huge relief. Decommodification would be a great social leveler. And yet, our population is more diverse and stratified than in the countries where liberal policies reign. Would liberal policies have the same effect here? I’d like to think so. I am curious about where you differ with the “Left.”

  • It amazes me you entertain such arguments. My observation of society suggests happiness comes from within; it is not a function of externals. Some of the wealthiest people live lives of misery and some of the poorest some of the most fulfilled and happy lives. I would suggest political theorists create tortured arguments to further their own causes, for THEIR own betterment, not for yours or mine.

    Buck: I entertain such arguments because I find the data compelling. I certainly agree with you that happiness comes from within, but have observed myself that it is also powerfully influenced by externals. I’m curious how you would explain Radcliff’s findings.


  • Julia

    I suppose I’ll have to read the book to learn more, but usually when I think of countries with “big government,” I’m thinking of places like Russia and China. Do they fit into Radcliff’s analysis, or does he find a way of writing around them?

    Personally, I’m in favor of a middle path. I remember reading a post you wrote about “diffusion of responsibility.” It seems to me that the larger a government is, the more responsibility is diffused, which allows quite a few abuses to slip through the cracks.

  • Isabel Tifft

    It’s a blithe and insulated certainty that states that all happiness is found only within. What nice lives these people must lead! The fact that a very few people can determinedly, and with staggering self-discipline, still find happiness under unbearable circumstances, is the exception that proves the rule. Try living their lives for 3 days. You won’t be happy.

    I grew up very comfortable and had two profitable careers but, through a bad series of events, found myself impoverished, helpless, disabled, denied care and support by the very policies I’d paid into all my life, and with very few choices about anything.

    The helplessness changed me. Being consistently treated like a thing—an unsavory, unwanted, irritating thing—in the face of any amount of intelligent, reasoned, heartfelt argument to the contrary, is an unforgettable experience.

    When the rules and structures you’ve supported and believed in cease to allow your very existence, they no longer deserve your respect. People say the poor are lawless, but it’s not the poor who abandon the law. It’s the law which abandons the poor. When you are really poor, it is impossible—not hard, but literally impossible—to survive without breaking laws.

    As for jobs, let’s get real. When going to work costs more than you make, what is the smart move? Everybody wants to be productive, but nobody wants to be that big a chump.

    To be happy when you are nothing but an unwanted, unwantable thing (or commodity), otherwise known as a target for predators and police, is a feat of self-delusion I never mastered. All you can do is try to meet your needs and stay out of the crosshairs. It’s that simple. Happiness is for people who have more options. I had none. Many still don’t.

    I’ve never forgotten the lessons of poverty and desperate need. I’m a decent and generous person, and that allowed others to flourish; in time they returned the favor, because there is absolutely nothing wrong with being decent and generous. They kept me alive until my intelligence and hard work led to a good settlement and, finally, a poor but adequate income… and with my basic needs met, lo, happiness is one thought away.

    There is no shame in generosity. There is no disgrace in kindness. There is no financial drawback to beneficial policies—the data indicate the reverse: it’s much cheaper in the long run, and creates more wealth. The right-wing line on these things has been wrongheaded, if not screamingly petulant and hateful, from the start.

    I grew up in the Middle East in the late 60s and 70s, surrounded by the remains of 10,000 years of human history. The great lesson was this: never let a quorum of people become so desperate they have nothing to lose.

    The “haves” need to remember that.

  • Excerpted from James Taranto article in the WSJ-4/8/14:

    The author is the young Washington Post veteran Ezra Klein, who runs, a new site hitherto best known for featuring Matthew Yglesias as a lad clad in bad plaid. Klein’s article is about what he calls “cutting-edge research” that “shows that the more information partisans get, the deeper their disagreements become.” Put that way, the hypothesis seems unremarkable. If the disagreements are about values rather than facts to begin with, one would expect better-informed people on either side to be more confident of their own point of view.

    But the experiment Klein cites found evidence that ideological predisposition can lead people to make objective cognitive errors. Researchers led by Yale Law School’s Dan Kahan presented subjects a chart that “compared crime data in the cities that banned handguns against crime data in the cities that didn’t. In some cases, the numbers, properly calculated, showed that the ban had worked to cut crime. In others, the numbers showed it had failed.”

    “Liberals were extremely good at solving the problem when doing so [ostensibly] proved that gun-control legislation reduced crime,” Klein recounts. They did badly when presented with numbers that “proved” the opposite. And vice versa for conservatives.

    What’s more, the gap was bigger for subjects who were better at math. As Klein puts it: “People weren’t reasoning to get the right answer; they were reasoning to get the answer that they wanted to be right.” It seems worth noting, though, that the numbers were fake, so that this was an abstract math problem whose “correct” answer might have been incorrect in the real world.

    In summary: Figures do not lie, but liars figure.

  • Thanks for this article as I pretty much agree. It is hard to be happy if you are insecure and as someone who has a steady income from various “liberal” policies in my retirement I am thankful for the type of basic government we have. Like anyone one with sense I could find something to change but I guarantee you I don’t want it “small enough to drown in a bathtub”.

  • Sometime last year, Rush Limbaugh’s radio listeners heard him say “Everything that people hold dear is under assault—Obama is deliberately making people upset!” This was quickly harvested by some conservative reporters, who pronounced that the high rates of depression, anxiety and mood disorders in America under Obama are direct results of the fundamental social and economic transformation policies of the Democrats. It would appear that not only the liberal policies don’t make people happy, but they in fact make them sick.

    I came across this pronouncement a few days after returning from a trip to Norway and Sweden, the two countries that have had liberal policies in place for a number of years. I was curious about the state of their citizens’ mental conditions. As a result, I did some research and compared the findings in my blog post entitled “I think he wants people to snap: Stress of Living in America”, which I invite you to check for specific comparisons.

    I found one conservative suggestion particularly interesting. Its author, David Kupelian, said, “Because when you’re upset and angry and overreacting—pardon me for putting it this way—you become stupid.”

    Yes, apparently stressed out or depressed equals stupid. “Stupid” (anxious, panicked, depressed) is cowardly, contemptible and ineffective, so it has to be cured not by medical science, therapy or counseling but by God and the return of right-wing values.

  • Julia Koller

    Renata, you’ve clearly mastered the art of trolling via sarcasm. Please stop stereotyping those who have political opinions you disagree with. Considering that many of my friends who had excellent jobs before Obama became president must now work two jobs just to make ends meet, I have to disagree with how wonderful a job he is doing. But I disagree with you based on what I experience, not on some rhetoric from Rush Limbaugh or belief that religion is the salvation of our country. See the difference?

    Part of the problem with politics is that opposing parties rarely extend courtesy to those on the other side of the issues. Chances are, good solutions are somewhere in between the two extremes. So which side do you want to be on? The one that stereotypes your opponent, or the one that opens up respectful dialogue?

  • Julia, I sure did use sarcasm as I thought that Rush et al were lunatics about the issue of a marked increase in the stupidity of the overstressed Americans under Obama.

    However, I took due diligence and used two sets of data to compare how citizens of our country (before Obama took office) fared on stress, depression and “absence of happiness” against citizens of a couple of European countries where the liberal policies of social safety net, universal healthcare, strong property rights, contract enforcement and ease of doing business among others have been entrenched for a while now.

    Please refer to my post for the actual data. It is interesting. It also seems to support Dr. Lickerman’s conclusion that Radcliff’s thesis that life is not as stressful living in states leaning to left.

    Huffington Post recently provided this topic-relevant infographic as well:

    Thanks for giving me the opportunity to share.

  • Julia Koller

    Renata, as Buck wrote above, people generally look at data to confirm their personal view, not the other way around. That seems to me to be exactly what you are doing. For every fact you can find supporting your hypothesis, I can find information against it. Where does that leave us?

    Comparing one European country to America is like comparing a Grape to a Grapefruit. Norway has about 5 million people, and the U.S. has about 318 million people. It is ≈1.5% the size of the U.S. If I used a comparative analysis like that in my research papers (and lack of citations), my professor would flunk me without blinking.

    As for the Huffington post article, you’re assuming correlation equals causation. I could just easily pull up a map of rural vs. urban areas and say that people are happier because they live in suburbia. Or a map of climate, and say that people are less happy in hot-humid places. Or, I could say that the happiest states are mostly red… because depending on which red/blue map you look at… hopefully you get my point.

    Personally, I think America can learn quite a bit from other countries. But not everything that works well for a small country can be applied the same way to America. Also, there is probably merit to Radcliff’s work, I haven’t read it yet so I can’t say. My personal experience is leading me to a different conclusion. As you’ve written in your blog post, Norway is considered a “middle-ground,” and I think that is what our country should be pursuing. But then how do we measure “middle-ground”?

    Julia: Actually, if you can find information that argues against Radcliff’s theory, I’d like to see it.


  • Julia Koller

    Here’s a question: why are we equating size with political orientation? Wouldn’t it be possible to have a small, liberal government? Or a large, conservative government? It seems to me that when either party has a majority, they love to spend money, just on different things.

    Julia: With that I heartily agree!


  • Julia Koller

    One more comment and then I’ll be quiet. I find it interesting that the NIMH’s map of suicide rates is almost an exact inversion of Huffington Post’s map:

    I’m not saying the Hedonometer isn’t a useful source of information, I just don’t think the data is as easy to interpret as HP would like to make it.

    Julia: Hmm. Except that Illinois, California, Michigan, New York, Minnesota are all blue states and have the lowest rates of suicide.


  • Julia,
    I like your spunk. However, I think that it has led you to disregard the facts. I was NOT comparing grapes to grapefruits. Here is the excerpt from my post: “In 2005, in the EU countries tested (approximately 300 million people) depressive disorders (including bipolar disorder) accounted for 7.8% of the population. In the US in 2004 (again the latest stats available from the National Institute of Mental Health) there were 9.3% of Americans affected by depression and bipolar disorder combined. 1.5% more Americans than Europeans suffered from depressive disorders at the same time. Four years before Obama became President.”

    Otherwise, I support a lot of your points.

  • Julia Koller

    My apologies, Renata. I didn’t read far enough into your post to see those statistics. Cheers.

  • Michael

    Liberalism is a new invention; conservatism is the way humans have lived for the past 10,000 years.

    For liberalism to have survived as a concept, it simply must be superior in some fundamental way to conservatism. Otherwise, it would be a failed experiment that died out, rather than the default status of every developed country on Earth.

  • Detroit is a wonderful example of the success of liberal policies bringing happiness to people. Detroit, Michigan, which in 1960 had the highest per-capita income in the entire nation.

    Today, welfare dependency has become a way of life in the once-proud Motor City.

    Roughly one-third of Detroit’s 140 square miles is either vacant or derelict. There are approximately 78,000 abandoned homes in the city and local realtors offer houses for $1 and still find no takers.

    A horrifying 47% of Detroit residents are functionally illiterate. Less than half of Detroit residents over the age of 16 are working. And 60% of all children in the city live in poverty.

    That’s the bottom line on the “Model Welfare City”—where the same robber-baron Political Class has been in power for nearly 40 years.

    In fact, the violent crime rate is five times higher than the national average and the murder rate is 11 times higher than New York City.

    It doesn’t help that the size of the police force in Detroit has been cut by about 40% over the past decade. Or that it takes an average of 58 minutes for police to respond to a 911 call.

    What’s more, only a third of Detroit’s ambulances are drivable—some have been used for so long that they have more than 250,000 miles on them.

  • Oak

    Do you give someone fish or teach him or her to fish? Life is meant to have stresses and for people to work through them. A collectivist, big-government, “nanny-state” does not teach self-reliance. There are legitimate people in need, and they can receive charity to help them get back on their feet, but that isn’t what is being discussed here. Rather it is a welfare state with entitlement (and lack of freedom) from cradle to grave. Is a coyote or wolf roaming around in a world of limited resources more or less happy than a domesticated dog kept in a crate every day and fed pellets? Maybe the coyote doesn’t know where its next meal will come from, bur what happens to that dog when its human loses his or her job due to the inability to expand in a heavily-taxed society and that dog food doesn’t come regularly? I would argue that self-reliance, and a State that promotes that while trying to maintain a balance by allowing the citizens as much personal liberty as possible while maintaining social order, is much better than the alternative liberal utopia which can never exist. Life is not and never has been “fair.” Liberal policies beget a dependent population of mentally ill people that don’t know how to catch a fish, couldn’t because of all the regulation, expect to be given one, and even if they were, wouldn’t know how to clean or cook it.

  • Oak

    And I believe that the true essence of Buddhism is much more aligned with conservative and libertarian thinking than with liberal thought.

  • John Thomas

    Curiosity question, as I have not read the book that you reference: the authors argument in favor of larger governments and more government intervention appears to be based upon the idea of people having more control over their work lives as employees. Is that correct?

    Did the author address the possibility that this personal autonomy could be obtained by people learning how to start and run their own businesses as opposed to staying only with the thought of being an employee? In other words, are other forms of self-autonomy available which don’t necessarily have anything to do with a larger governmental structure, and do these other options for self-autonomy produce the same happiness levels as this authors proposed larger government model?


    John: No, he didn’t address that issue. It’s a good question, the answer to which I don’t know.


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