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Living the legislated life

By Steven Schwartz - posted Thursday, 15 November 2001


Just in case any of you are finding the world a little hard to bear at the moment, take heart - a better life can be legislated. At least this is what one adviser to the Australian Democrats believes. Writing in The Australian, she says that governments can, and should, influence "love, sex, and happy marriages".

What this particular writer had in mind are laws mandating flexible, and shorter, working hours, and longer, better paid, maternity and paternity leave. I am certainly not against these things, provided, of course, that employers and employees can make them work.

But to tell you the truth, I am not sure that these measures will really spread joy through the land. Instead of timid little demands, the recent election was an opportunity to extract really big whoppers from the new government. Here is my idea of a happiness platform:

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People of Australia, vote for us, and we will devote ourselves to improving your personal life and making your marriage happy. As our first measure, we will require all single people to enrol in government-subsidised dating services. If we are elected, even the most desperate of you will be guaranteed a date every Saturday night. For those new to the mysteries of romance, we will provide free sex videos (suitably censored, of course, to ensure wholesome family values). To help maintain relationships once they are formed, our centralised message bank will automatically send a reminder to your mobile phone one week before your partner’s birthday or your anniversary. Tax deductions will be allowed for gifts of government-approved champagne, flowers and chocolates.

Now I may be just an old grump but, as you can probably tell, I am a little dubious about the idea that legislation can make you happy. The way I see it, if laws made people happy, we should already be the most jovial nation on earth. Every aspect of our behaviour is already subject to some sort of legislation. There are laws controlling smoking, drinking, schooling, working, buying, selling, driving, holidays, even dying. Nothing is too small to be left to chance. For example, in my state of Western Australia, it is against the law to purchase a new car after 1:00 PM on Saturday. I cannot tell you how happy that law has made us.

The truth is that Australians are not very happy at all. There is an epidemic of depression in our land; we have one of the highest youth suicide rates in the world. Australians are not happy, and I humbly suggest that less, not more, legislation is the answer.

According to most psychological theories, what would really help make people happy is more freedom. Depression is a complicated problem, one that has touched me personally, and I do not wish to trivialise it by being overly simplistic. But one common trait among depressed people is a sense of powerlessness - of not controlling their destiny. People with depression become despondent because they feel "helpless". One of the goals of psychological treatment is to give depressed people a sense of power; to instil the belief that what they do, and how they act, will affect their future.

All of us, not just those who are clinically depressed, need to possess a similar sense of control over our lives. The more dependent we are on others, including the government, the more powerless we feel, and the more depressed we become. Political and economic freedom, empowerment, and the pursuit of happiness are inextricably entwined - you cannot have one without the others.

Although the connection between dependency and depression is well known, some Australian intellectuals, as we have seen, continue to insist that we need more, not less, government in our lives.

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Who are these intellectuals? According to Harvard’s Robert Nozick, they are wordsmiths who trade in ideas, using the media to publicise their viewpoints on social and political matters. Their ranks contain few engineers or scientists, no dentists or doctors, and scarcely anyone from the military or business communities. Social scientists, however, are common among their numbers. And their biggest gripe is with freedom of choice, especially free-market capitalism. Although, the specific aspect of capitalism that annoys them is hard to pin down - it seems to vary with time and place.

For example, in the 1930s, critics argued that "failure" of the free market caused the economic hardships of the depression. Of course, these critics meticulously ignored the decades of government-sponsored market interference that preceded the depression.

Later, in the 1950s and 60s, which were both decades of economic growth, criticism took the opposite tack. Capitalism had not failed; it was too successful. In his famous indictment of the capitalists of the 1950s, a book called The Affluent Society, J.K. Galbraith described those who championed free markets as people who were prepared to sell their souls for useless consumer goods in a bleak, utilitarian, society. In other words, you can’t win. Capitalism is damned when it fails to ensure prosperity and damned for materialism when it succeeds.

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This is an edited version of the Centre for Independent Studies’ 25 Anniversary Lecture, given in Melbourne on October 25, 2001.



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About the Author

Steven Schwartz is a former vice-chancellor of Macquarie University.

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