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People flourish when they earn their own success. It’s not the money per se, which is merely a measure–not a source–of this earned success. More than any other system, free enterprise enables people to earn success and thereby achieve happiness. For that reason, it is not just an economic alternative but a moral imperative.
People think that they will be happier if they have more money, but quickly find out that they’re mistaken. When people are asked what income they require for a satisfying life, they consistently respond–regardless of their income–that they would need an income about 40 percent higher than whatever they’re earning at the time.
Benjamin Franklin (a pretty rich man for his time) grasped the truth about money’s inability to deliver life satisfaction. “Money never made a man happy yet, nor will it,” he declared. “The more a man has, the more he wants. Instead of filling a vacuum, it makes one.”
If money without earned success does not bring happiness, then redistributing money won’t make for a happier America. Knowing as we do that earning success is the key to happiness, rather than simply getting more money, the goal of our political system should be this: to give all Americans the greatest opportunities possible to succeed based on their hard work and merit.
This is the liberty our founders wrote about, the liberty that enables the true pursuit of happiness.
Earned success gives people a sense of meaning about their lives. And meaning also is a key to human flourishing.
It reassures us that what we do in life is of significance and value, for ourselves and those around us. To truly flourish, we need to know that the ways in which we occupy our waking hours are not based on the mere pursuit of pleasure or money or any other superficial goal. We need to know that our endeavors have a deeper purpose.
Free enterprise enables us to find meaningful work through free markets that match our skills and passions. In free markets, we can change jobs, work longer or shorter hours within reason, and take more or less vacation than other people.
Increasingly, we can flex our hours and jump into and out of the work force as our lives and our circumstances change. These free markets largely do not exist in Europe, with their mandated pay and vacation, cradle-to-grave systems of job security, and generous unemployment benefits.
Meaning at work comes from feeling productive. This is how we earn our success and what makes us happy.
People who feel they are productive in their jobs, regardless of pay, are about five times likelier to be very satisfied with their jobs than people who don’t feel this way.
Of course, when we are being productive, we often get paid more. But the money is a nice side effect, not the cause of the happiness we enjoy.
Feeling productive does not mean being protected from competition. It means beating the competition through merit and hard work. It does not come from a collective bargaining agreement and the threat to strike, but from a job well done. And it certainly doesn’t come from a welfare check. All of this explains why our free enterprise system produces happier workers than in most of Europe.
Americans prefer to find meaning in their jobs rather than through their after-work pursuits and to trade security of employment for the possibilities of earned success. The free enterprise system reflects these American priorities. The policies of the 30 percent coalition do not.
Free enterprise is not simply an economic alternative. Free enterprise is about who we are as a people and who we want to be. It embodies our power as individuals and our independence from the government. In short, enterprise is an act of self-expression–a declaration of what we truly value–and a social issue for Americans.
Arthur C. Brooks is the president of AEI.
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