Paul Ryan’s review of Sachs’ new book

Lynne Kiesling

Today I offer a break in my usual loathing of politics to compliment a politician, not for his political work, but for an intellectually engaging and erudite essay. In Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, Paul Ryan reviewed The Price of Civilization, the new book from Jeffrey Sachs. Sachs is something of a bête noire in economics, rightly so in my opinion, for his post-Soviet consulting career that concentrated on the imposition of top-down “market reforms” in countries like Poland and Russia. Poland’s relative success in liberalizing occurred despite Sachs and because of more transparent and decentralized legal reforms beyond his recommendation.

Ryan’s opening paragraph immediately shed some light on why Sachs’ perspective is so destructive by invoking Rousseau:

Free enterprise has never lacked for moral critics. In the mid-18th century, for instance, the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau rejected the proposition that the free exchange of goods and services, and the competitive pursuit of self-interest by economic actors, result in general prosperity—ideas then emanating from Great Britain. In a commercial society, according to Rousseau, the people are “scheming, violent, greedy, ambitious, servile, and knavish . . . and all of it at one extreme or the other of misery and opulence.” Only a people with “simple customs [and] wholesome tastes” can be virtuous.

In “The Price of Civilization,” Jeffrey Sachs carries Rousseau’s argument into the 21st century. Mr. Sachs, a development economist at Columbia University, believes that “at the root of America’s economic crisis lies a moral crisis: the decline of civic virtue among America’s political and economic elite.” The book’s veneer of economic analysis cannot conceal what is essentially a crusade against the free enterprise ethic of our republic.

Only through a reshaping of our principles and a reordering of the American economy, Mr. Sachs believes, can we become “a mindful society.” We must abandon a culture that is defined by hard work and the striving for upward mobility and an economy that has unleashed unparalleled prosperity. Hard work impedes leisure. Ambition is a vice. Economic growth hurts the planet.

Sachs argues for a move to a “French-style” civil law constitution, away from the evolutionary accumulation of institutional knowledge that, as Hayek says, is embedded in the custom reflected in English common law that is the foundation of American law and American principles. In part his argument rests on unpacking that “pursuit of happiness” so treasured in American culture, but as Ryan tells it, Sachs thinks government has a role to play in creating happiness (rather than creating an environment conducive to individual pursuit of it) because he has erroneously adopted a utilitarian framing of the concept:

Yet Mr. Sachs’s gospel of happiness draws not on the inspired tradition of the Founders but rather on the Utilitarian philosophy of Jeremy Bentham. In the 1780s, Bentham proposed that “happiness,” which he equated with “pleasure,” could be mathematically measured. It was not sufficient, he thought, for government to protect our rights if it was to vouchsafe our pursuit of happiness. Government must instead quantify “the greatest happiness of the greatest number” and set policies and goals accordingly. There was a science to satisfaction, Bentham claimed, and it was a puzzle that trained experts could solve.

Channeling Bentham, Mr. Sachs calls for the establishment of a national metrics for life satisfaction and sets a 10-year goal to “raise America’s happiness.” Although the specific measures are hazy, the steps are clear: For people to be happy, their government must increasingly shield them from the challenges of life. The good life is thus defined as one of ever-more pleasure at the expense of work.

But happiness in this world results not from avoiding challenges but from meeting them. Happiness is the recompense of real effort, whether intellectual or physical, and of earned success. It comes from achievement—from doing something of economic, artistic or emotional value. The satisfaction to be taken in producing valuable things brings with it a lasting sense of personal fulfillment. Mr. Sachs’s design for paternalistic government will only impede the pursuit of happiness.

Ryan’s review reflects substantial insight into the broader political economy and cultural implications of Sachs’ views, and he injects that insight into the essay with, for me, unexpected eloquence and breadth and depth of scholarly knowledge. I was quite impressed with his analysis and commentary simply as a stand-alone essay, let alone as a book review.

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6 thoughts on “Paul Ryan’s review of Sachs’ new book

  1. “Only a people with ‘ … wholesome tastes” can be virtuous.’ Sounds familiar. Was Rousseau an environmentalist? Sumptuary laws have an eternal attraction to some.

  2. Positive psychologists Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi have written extensively on happines. “Flow – The Psychology of Optimal Experience” by Csikszentmihalyi is a good place to start to understand, as Ryan writes, “It (happiness) comes from achievement—from doing something of economic, artistic or emotional value. The satisfaction to be taken in producing valuable things brings with it a lasting sense of personal fulfillment.”

    Seligman’s work, “Authentic Happiness” shows that people who have suffered adversity remain about as happy as those who do not. Learned helplessness is a concept Selgiman describes. It is the opposite of happiness. Learned helplessness occurs when animals or people discover that there is nothing they can do to affect their situation. The situation can occur in a behaviorist’s lab – on purpose – or in centrally planned organization or government – in the name of helping people.

    Happiness cannot accurately be measured by measuring things. Direction and expectations are much better measures.

  3. It was an excellent article and I added it to my permanent collection. It made me sad that he is not running for President. But, I console myself. He is only 40 yro. He could be a candidate in 2036, and not be thought to be too old.

  4. Ryan may loath a paternalistic government that precludes true achievement, but he doesn’t practice what he preaches. Since graduating from college, he has worked as a congressional aide, a speechwriter for a congressman, and an elected congressman. As a congressman, he is insulated from the need for private health insurance or Medicare. His congressional pension will easily outpace the ordinary worker’s Social Security benefits.
    Sachs leans quite a bit to the left, but at least he wants all citizens to benefit from government policy, whereas Ryan seems to want to reserve that benefit to himself and a few friends.

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