David R. Henderson  

Richard Epstein on Happiness, III

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This is my last post on Russ Roberts's interview of Richard Epstein on the happiness literature. For the previous installments see here and here.

40:40. Epstein talks about insights from sociobiology, now called evolutionary psychology. He points out their finding (obvious when you think about it but, nevertheless, powerful) that narrow self-interest cannot account for why people and most animals are so fiercely protective of their young.

44:00. New parents are stunned by the power of biological impulses. Good line: "Mother Nature snuck up on them."
This made me think of two incidents shortly after we had our daughter, Karen. First, I used to be anal about watching a whole TV show and not missing even one laugh and especially not missing the denouement. But after about the third clean-up of my daughter's formula throw-up in the middle of one of my favorite comedy shows, finding out what happened seemed almost completely unimportant.
Second, one night I came to bed late and tripped on the corner of the bed. "S**t," I yelled out involuntarily. My wife was sound asleep and didn't even stir. A few seconds after I lad lain down, I heard Karen wimper softly in her room. My wife woke up instantly and went to see what was wrong.

45:00. "Walking away when a child is sick is a losing strategy."

46:00. Epstein points out that the happiness literature assumes hedonism. He probably overgeneralized but much of it does.

51:00. Epstein notes that sentiments increase cooperative behavior.

52:00. Great line: "Most people, when they meet somebody else, will give them a chance. The first interaction is usually not a fatal form of a prisoner's dilemma."

53:00. The real risk of the thug is when the thug has the power of the state. His statement reminded me of something I wrote in Chapter 7 of my book, The Joy of Freedom: An Economist's Odyssey:

Government use of force against ethnic groups is far more effective than private use of force against these same groups. I remember that when I first heard about Hitler at about age eight, and asked my mother who he was, I was told that 15 years earlier he had used tanks and other weapons to try to take over the world. I pictured a nut with some tanks he had bought coming down our highway and invading our small town in rural Canada. I didn't understand at the time why Hitler was such a threat; I had been raised to believe that the police would protect us. Imagine the shock and sudden surge of overwhelming fear I had when, years later, I learned that Hitler employed the police and, indeed, ran a whole government. That was scary. Even as a child I knew that the government, any government, had more power than anyone who was not in the government, and that when the government passed and enforced a law, you couldn't legally fight back. That's when the true terror of Hitler dawned on me.

53:45. After Epstein has pointed out the danger of putting immense power in the hands of government officials who used it for evil ends--he lists the usual suspects: Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, etc.--Russ Roberts has a great understated line, "The Middle Ages weren't so good either."


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CATEGORIES: Economic Philosophy



COMMENTS (5 to date)
OneEyedMan writes:

"52:00. Great line: "Most people, when they meet somebody else, will give them a chance. The first interaction is usually not a fatal form of a prisoner's dilemma.""

I once read (I think it was in guns germs and steel) of primitive tribesmen who recited the names of their extended families upon meeting a stranger so that they could drum up a region to not try to kill each other. Of course, if they couldn't find a common ancestor...

George writes:

I haven't read Guns, Germs, and Steel, but Ayaan Hirsi Ali starts off Infidel talking about how her grandmother stressed memorizing her lineage, and how people would recite the names of their extended families upon meeting a stranger — in modern-day Somalia.

As for "The Middle Ages weren't so good either": at least in the West, you had a Church and (several) States with separate powers and courts, so there was some check on despotism. I know Hitler depended on industrialization and modern forms of bureaucracy and communication, but even if he'd somehow had those in 1100, it's tough to imagine him getting very far if he outraged the only pan-European power.

Finally, getting back to happiness research: it'd be nice if research could give me an answer to what would make me happy. It'd also be nice for it to tell me what happiness actually is. I'm pretty sure I'd be unhappy if I held my breath waiting for either one.

David R. Henderson writes:

George,
Are you saying that you don't think happiness research won't tell you what would make you happy or that you don't know what would make you happy? I assume the former?
Best,
David

The Cupboard Is Bare writes:

"A few seconds after I lad lain down, I heard Karen wimper softly in her room. My wife woke up instantly and went to see what was wrong."

That is Mother Nature at work. My husband was hammering large nails into two-by-fours for a couple of hours. I was in the same room and slept through all of it. However, let there be so much as a single faint cry, whether it be that of a child or a kitten, it immediately wakes me up or grabs my attention. My husband, who frequently doesn't pick up on the sound will see the expression on my face and say, "What?!?"

Carl writes:

"Self-interest": does it mean that the only thing that is the OBJECT of an individual's interest is the self or does it mean that the only that is the SUBJECT of an individual's interest is the self?

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