Kevin Drum doesn’t understand why Gregg Easterbrook is confused by the fact that material progress doesn’t bring people greater happiness.
I would like to argue that this is not such a confusing stance for an American to take, as I discussed before, when Thomas Jefferson demanded the freedom to pursue “happiness” he was really arguing for the freedom to own private property. No, what really bothers me about Easterbrook’s Op-Ed isn’t his definition of happiness, but his definition of progress. What arguments about “material progress” inevitably overlook a very important issue: inequality.
Over the same period that Easterbrook discusses, inequality has been increasing, and social mobility has been decreasing. As Nobel Prize winning economist and philosopher Amartya Sen argues, it doesn’t matter if the total bundle of goods received by the poorest is getting larger if, at the same time, social inequality is increasing. That is to say, it is harder to function as a poor person in a rich society than in a poor one, even if you have more material possessions. An argument borne out by the fact of lower life expectancies amongst poor and minority populations in industrialized nations when compared with materially poorer populations in developing nations.
For more information on inequality, check out the excellent site, inequality.org (unfortunately, they don’t have RSS feeds, permalinks, or anything else you’d expect from a modern advocacy web site, but it is worth checking out on a regular basis).