NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Despite the rantings that dominate U.S. pop culture against big government, a comprehensive survey finds that people who live in nations where the national governments spend more on social services are much happier than people with more laissez-faire governments.
For the study — Assessing the Impact of the Size and Scope of Government on Human Well-Being — which was published in the journal Social Forces, researchers analyzed data from 50,000 respondents in 21 advanced industrialized countries collected by the World Values Survey from 1981 to 2007.
“The effect of state intervention into the economy equals or exceeds marriage or employment status — two traditional predictors of happiness — when it comes to satisfaction,” says Patrick Flavin, an assistant professor of political science in Baylor’s College of Arts & Sciences and co-author of the study.
The Great Recession that started in 2007 has kicked off a debate about how much governments should intervene in the market economy, with conservatives often championing free market capitalism with minimal government intervention. By contrast, left-leaning politicians and labor organizations tend to argue for more government intervention to compensate for shortcomings of the market and the social inequalities that are caused or worsened by them.
Flavin and his team — which included Benjamin Radcliff, professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame, and Alexander C. Pacek, associate professor of political science at Texas A&M University — relied on four measures of government policies in making their assessments. These included the overall size of government consumption as a percentage of national gross domestic product; social welfare expenditures as a percentage of GDP; labor market regulations; and the extent to which citizens can access welfare benefits and other social services in light of unemployment, retirement and family circumstances.
"We assessed respondents' subjective well-being using a very straightforward question: 'All things considered, how satisfied are you with your life as a whole these days?'" Flavin says.
Respondents were asked to rank how content they were on a scale of 1 to 10, and these ratings were averaged. Those countries that made it into the top 10 include Denmark (8.20), Switzerland (8.10), Iceland (8.04), Ireland (7.95), Austria (7.95), Finland (7.82), Sweden (7.82), Canada (7.82), Norway (7.78) and the Netherlands (7.76). The United States ranked at No. 11, with an average rating of 7.61.
The study's findings were consistent among survey participants regardless of income status. The researchers also controlled for factors such as the respondent's health, education level and marital status, as well as the GDP or unemployment rate of the respondent's nation.
"Are we saying we need a bigger government to be happier? No. Instead, our goal is to objectively examine the data and let people draw their own conclusions," Flavin says. "If anything, this study is a conversation-starter about what role we envision for government in our lives and the advantages and disadvantages of government intervention into the market economy."
And how do the researchers define happiness?
“By happiness, we really mean a more foundational understanding of the extent to which people actually appreciate their lives,” Radcliff says on WBUR radio’s Here and Now. “Actually ask people about how satisfied they are with their lives and it is thought to get at a cognitive appreciation of the core basic idea, which is to what extent do people … enjoy their lives.”
The study tests which public policy approaches often used in capitalist economies are linked to citizens leading more satisfactory and rewarding lives, Radcliff says.
“The findings are extremely consistent across a huge range of models, which is essentially that the larger the government sector or the more generous the welfare state, the more protective labor market protections are for workers, all of these things have positive and dramatic impacts on well-being,” Radcliff says. “More importantly, perhaps, those relationships hold up across social class — in other words, they affect the affluent as much as the working class and the middle class. There isn't a class bias, in effect.”
So what are the implications of this study in the United States? Some say it shows that regardless of one’s political affiliation, we all care about and need access to the same basic services to thrive.
“With Democrats and Republicans continually facing off over whether government spending on social services is a net boon or burden for its citizens; this discovery should help settle the debate,” writes Erin Brodwin on Mic. “The ability to attend school, afford important medical procedures and retire at a certain age without fear of going into debt should not be privileges extended only to a nation's wealthiest residents.”
— Written by Laura Kiesel for MainStreet