Aristotle’s conception of human flourishing – Eudaimonia – is best understood by looking at a life lived without it, writes Daniel Wild.
Over 2500 years ago Aristotle taught the ultimate goal of human life is to achieve Eudaimonia, which we translate to flourishing. Flourishing means applying one’s talents, skills and potential to achieve something which is worthwhile and which couldn’t have been achieved in the absence of that person’s actions.
Aristotle understood that flourishing resulted from the application of human agency and action. Musicians flourish when playing music. Runners flourish when running. Just having potential is not enough – it needs to be fully applied.
But what does this abstract philosophising mean for public policy? It means giving people the freedom to embark on the dignified endeavour of building their own lives, where people work to become successful and support themselves. It is where they acquire new skills to get better. It is where they build families and communities. And it is where they learn self-governance.
The free enterprise system brings flourishing because it is the only system that allows earned success. Arthur Brooks, President of the American Enterprise Institute, has described earned success as ‘defining your future as you see fit and achieving success on the basis of merit and hard work.’ Earned success is the ultimate action and is the key to flourishing.
The heart of a free enterprise system is a free market matching skills to jobs. In a free market system people are more likely to do what they are good at: the easier it is to find a job, and the easier it is to move betweenjobs, the more likely it is to find a suitable vocation. Even better, the free market ensures that people are only rewarded when they create value for others. The highest paid in a free market are those who create the most value. They are the best at satisfying other people’s wants and needs.
The alternative is producing something under the direction of government officials, as in the Soviet Union. What could be more depressing to the human spirit than producing nails that no one will ever use for the privilege of standing in a queue for hours to receive a handful of stale bread? Or there’s the crony capitalist system, which is ever increasing in countries like ours, rewarding the well-connected for performing political favours rather than doing good.
IN MODERN WESTERN ECONOMIES PEOPLE ARE SEARCHING FOR MEANING AS MUCH AS MONEY, AND FREE ENTERPRISE CAN GET THEM BOTH.
The happy ancillary consequence of the free enterprise system is that people are more productive because they are better matched to suitable jobs. They therefore earn higher incomes, creating higher economic growth as a nation. But financial outcomes are secondary. Flourishing and happiness come first. Higher incomes come second. That is not to scoff at the material prosperity enabled by free enterprise. It is responsible for lifting billions out of poverty. One need look no further than the special economic zones in China or micro-finance in Bangladesh.
When people are given a chance to do good, they do good. But in modern western economies people are searching for meaning as much as money, and free enterprise can get them both.
Earned success doesn’t just come from work. It can come from a successful marriage, raising children or making a valued contribution to a community group. As American political scientist Charles Murray stated in 2012, earned success comes from wherever you apply yourself to create something of value which turns out well and which you can rightly claim to be the result of your action.
Two of the greatest thinkers and writers, Alexis de Tocqueville and Edmund Burke, understood the importance of earned success when they enunciated the virtues of voluntarily created institutions in a free society. Through voluntary institutions (such as families, community, religious and environmental groups and sporting clubs) people are better able to organise their own affairs and develop the confidence needed to solve problems and become independent.
WHILE EARNED SUCCESS IS THE KEY TO HUMAN FLOURISHING, ITS OPPOSITE, LEARNED HELPLESSNESS, RESULTS IN MISERY.
Both Tocqueville and Burke saw that voluntary associations were a vital check on central government authority. Just as centrally mandated employment makes people miserable because it stunts their potential, so too centrally mandated solutions to local problems inevitably causes more harm than good. Decision-makers in Canberra don’t have the information needed to solve unique problems faced by people across the country.
The free enterprise system and the free society are mutually reinforcing. This is why political economist Adam Smith wrote both The Wealth of Nations and The Theory of Moral Sentiments. One is an enunciation of the virtues of the market system. The other (and first written) a recognition that these virtues are sustained by self-correcting social mores and attitudes which enable trust and mutual respect.
Taking Smith’s argument further, the free enterprise system shows we can earn our own way in life without government. And the free society shows we can care for ourselves, our families and our communities without Canberra-based directions. The sum total is that people are capable of fashioning their own lives. More importantly, human flourishing depends on solving our own problems because it requires the application of human agency to change something for the better.
While earned success is the key to human flourishing, its opposite, learned helplessness, results in misery. According to literature in psychology, learned helplessness is ‘a condition in which a person suffers from a sense of powerlessness, arising from a traumatic event or persistent failure to succeed.’
What is so interesting about learned helplessness is that it can originate from seemingly positive or negative sources. In his address to the Aspen Ideas Festival 2014, Arthur Brooks cited a study from the United States which tracked lottery winners. People who won saw winning as good but were not happier than a control group of those who didn’t win. It turns out the winners were actually losers because they reported deriving less happiness from everyday activities than non-winners.
WHEN REWARDS ARE DIVORCED FROM OUR ACTIONS, IT TEACHES US THAT WE ARE UNABLE TO CONTROL EVENTS, REINFORCING A SENSE OF HELPLESSNESS.
How is this possible? When rewards are divorced from our actions, it teaches us that we are unable to control events, reinforcing a sense of helplessness. The lottery winners are like public servants. They will tell you that more money and better experts will solve misery in low-income households. Wrong. What our lottery experiment clearly shows is that $10,000 from a pay cheque is not the same as $10,000 from welfare. The pay cheque is earned success, whereas welfare creates learned helplessness.
Why? Firstly, the welfare cheque tells recipients that to get something, you don’t need to do something. This reinforces a disposition to become passive and dependant.
Secondly, time out of work means the welfare-dependent fail to keep up with job-market skills and their abilities atrophy. They lose what skills they had to begin with. Then they lose the social connections that come with work. Then they are unable to start or raise a family. Without family, they are less likely to participate in their local community, or see others in their family such as grandparents. They become detached, lonely, dependant and unable to solve their own problems or control their own lives. They become convinced that controlling their lives is actually impossible.
This is why so many who are out of work and detached from their communities turn to drugs and alcohol, which serves to numb their meaninglessness. Video games give a brief sense of control and achievement, but because these pleasures are divorced from human agency they are not the path to flourishing.
The political left is not content with creating a class of passive and dependant welfare-recipients. They add to their woes by labelling them hapless victims of exploitation and inequality, fuelling the sense of helplessness and loss of control.
The pernicious effects of government interference severing human action from achievement and success were foreshadowed in the nineteenth century by Tocqueville:
The sovereign, after taking individuals one by one in his powerful hands and kneading them to his liking, reaches out to embrace society as a whole. Over it he spreads a fine mesh of uniform, minute and complex rules, through which not even the most original minds and most vigorous souls can poke their heads above the crowd. He does not break men’s wills but softens, bends and guides them. He seldom forces anyone to act but consistently opposes action… Rather than tyrannise, he inhibits, represses, saps, stifles and stultifies, and in the end he reduces each nation to nothing but a flock of timid and industrious animals, with the government as its shepherd.
Through gentle but persistent intervention, Tocqueville noted that people’s energy would be extinguished and when action was required, men would ‘rely on others’. Dr Steven Bilakovics from the University of California concurred in his article Capitalism as a Road to Serfdom? in which he wrote: ‘In the consequent empire of bureaucracy, individual initiative and the human spirit whither.’
We can have two very different futures. The first severs human agency from outcomes and creates a class of helpless, welfare-dependent people convinced they are the victims of the free enterprise system, when in reality they are victims of being locked out of it.
THE POLITICAL LEFT IS NOT CONTENT WITH CREATING A CLASS OF PASSIVE AND DEPENDANT WELFARE-RECIPIENTS. THEY ADD TO THEIR WOES BY LABELLING THEM HAPLESS VICTIMS OF EXPLOITATION AND INEQUALITY.
The second future, based on free enterprise and free society, strengthens the link between actions, rewarding people and creating the conditions necessary for earned success, self-governance, a confident citizenry and human flourishing.