Feature

Will Democracy Make You Happy?

For decades, politicians and political scientists have clung to the notion that free nations breed happy people. Now, though, a new 'science of happiness' is turning that equation on its head.

To travel to Moldova is to travel to a land submerged in a deep and persistent pool of despair. Faces are sullen and drawn. Everyone moves about listlessly, doing the Moldovan Shuffle. A cloud of despondency hangs in the air, every bit as real, and toxic, as the smog in Los Angeles or the coal dust in Linfen, China.

Statistically, Moldova may be the least happy nation on the planet. On a scale of 1 (least happy) to 10, Moldovans can muster only a 4.5 in self-reported surveys. They are less happy than their morose neighbors, the Ukrainians and the Romanians, and inexplicably, they are less happy than much of sub-Saharan Africa. What is truly mysterious, though, and deeply troubling for those in the business of nation building, is that Moldovan despair persists despite the advent of democracy.

This wasn’t supposed to happen here. The mood in Moldova -- and indeed in most of the former Soviet bloc countries -- flies in the face of what is received wisdom in foreign-policy circles: Democratic nations are happy nations. Or, to put it another way, the path to national bliss is paved with democracy. Until now, the debate has centered only on how best to travel that path and at what cost. "This interpretation is appealing and suggests that we have a quick fix for most of the world's problems: adopt a democratic constitution, and live happily ever after," says Ronald Inglehart, a professor at the Center for Political Studies at the University of Michigan, and a man who has spent a career studying the relationship between democracy and happiness.

There's only one problem with this compelling and seemingly self-evident truism. It's not true. "To assume that democracy automatically makes people happy is to assume that the tail is wagging the dog," says Inglehart. In other words, the well-intentioned nation builders and democracy exporters have it backward. It's not that democracies make people happy but, rather, that happy people make democracies.

THE SCIENCE OF SATISFACTION

This remarkable finding isn’t simply a new theory born out of thin air. It's based on hard data that social scientists on the leading edge of the emerging "science of happiness" are now employing to measure cultural artifacts such as trust and happiness, just as political scientists have for decades measured levels of democracy by comparing such metrics as press freedom and voting rights.

These social scientists do so through a disarmingly simple technique. They ask people, "Overall, how happy are you with your life these days?" Surveys such as the comprehensive World Values Survey have posed that question, with little variation, to people in more than 80 nations, accounting for some 85 percent of the world's population. They have produced a mother lode of data. Although the data are often contradictory, a few clear patterns have emerged. We now know, for example, that happy countries tend to be wealthy ones, with temperate climates and, crucially, stable democracies.

The question, though, is which comes first: happiness or democracy? Despite our earlier thinking, there is now growing evidence that a happy population, one where people are satisfied with their lives as a whole, is a prerequisite for democracy.

In the 1980s, happiness and democracy were closely linked (with a correlation of 0.8), thus cementing the democracy-equals-happiness theory in the minds of many political scientists and policymakers. But then came the so-called third wave of democracy, a flood of infant democracies that rose from the ashes of the Soviet Union and its satellite states in Eastern Europe. These nations have not enjoyed a happiness dividend, and, indeed, as in Moldova, many are less happy today than they were during Soviet times. Today, the correlation between happiness and democracy is only 0.25, less than a third of what it was in the 1980s. In more than 200 surveys carried out by the World Values Survey, 28 of the 30 least happy nations were registered in former communist states. The remaining two surveys were conducted in Iraq. In Russia, both subjective well-being (happiness) and trust have fallen sharply since its people began voting in relatively free elections. By 1995, a majority of Russians described themselves as unhappy and dissatisfied with their lives as a whole. The same is true of Moldova and several other former Soviet republics. (Russian misery, by the way, predates Vladimir Putin’s recent crackdown on freedoms.)

Contrast the mood in the former Soviet states with that of China. During the past two decades, as China witnessed an economic boom, its citizens reported levels of satisfaction consistently double those of people in former Soviet countries. This, despite the fact that China remains a one-party communist state where an indiscreet Google search can land you in jail.

Clearly, democracy is only one source of human happiness, and indeed it may not be the greatest source. Economic growth appears to affect national happiness at least as much as democracy. Economic growth helps foster trust between citizens and the state, and trust is essential to democracy. That's why in nations such as South Korea and Taiwan, a spurt of economic growth has preceded democratic reforms.

What the evidence on happiness demonstrates is that happy people are much more likely to express satisfaction with their country's political regime, regardless of what kind that might be, than unhappy people. That's not to say that democracy doesn’t matter. It does. All things being equal, democracy does provide a happiness boost. But all things are rarely equal.

Some studies point to a definite "happiness bonus" among the world's democracies, for example. In 1999, Swiss economists Bruno Frey and Alois Stutzer famously studied the effects of their country's system of direct democracy on happiness levels. Switzerland makes a perfect laboratory for this kind of study; the country shares a common culture (if not language) and relatively even economic development. Yet the degree of democracy varies from one district to the next. Frey and Stutzer asked some 6,000 residents, both Swiss citizens and foreigners, one question: "How satisfied are you with your life as a whole these days?" They found a clear correlation between the vitality of direct democracy and the subjective well-being, or happiness, of each district. The Swiss example proves that a bit more democracy makes a developed, already democratic country like Switzerland a bit happier. For the Swiss, direct democracy is the icing on their cake. But for nations with no cake, the icing is meaningless.

A LONG TIME COMING

It isn't hard to fall into the old trap of assuming democracy is such a powerful force that it can sweep aside any cultural differences that might stand in its way. Confronted with the obvious goodness of free elections and self-determination, peoples of the world should shed their cultural vestiges the way a snake sloughs its skin, right? It's a compelling idea, a perfectly plausible one, but one that happens to be wrong. "Culture seems to shape democracy far more than democracy shapes culture," says Inglehart.

Indeed, this notion of cultural primacy is gaining favor, especially among foreign-policy realists such as Colin Powell. "There are some places that are not ready for the kind of democracy we find so attractive for ourselves. They are not culturally ready for it," Powell said in a recent interview with GQ. That is not to say, of course, that these places won’t ever be ready for democracy. They just aren't ready now, and no amount of wishing, or purple ink, will make it so.

All of this can be a bit depressing for those who believe that foreign policy should be informed by an idealistic streak. But, as Iraq has demonstrated, midwifing a constitution won't necessarily turn a distrustful, unhappy society into a trusting, happy one. Of course, the science of happiness is in its infancy, and it would be foolish to base a foreign policy on its tentative conclusions. Social scientists may be able to measure, with some accuracy, abstractions such as happiness and trust, but they don't necessarily know how to produce these qualities -- in a person or a nation. What these findings do remind us, though, is that democracy bubbles up to the surface when the time is right and not a second sooner.

Feature

Is Nationalism Good for You?

It's blamed for everything from unruly populism to genocide. But what if nationalism isn't the unevolved reflex so many assume it to be? In fact nationalism could help create wealth, fight corruption, and lower crime.

Think of "nationalism," and you might think of a country brainwashed to hate its neighbors. You might imagine thousands of people sacrificing themselves for a power-hungry dictator. You wouldn’t be alone. Albert Einstein himself called nationalism "an infantile disease, the measles of mankind."

Political scientists blame it for civil wars and territorial ambitions, from Rwanda and Yugoslavia to Nazi Germany and Napoleonic France. Many economists view it as an irrational distraction from free-market principles, impeding growth and promoting corruption across the developing world. When war broke out in the past, nationalism was often automatically assumed to be a party to the crime, either as a tool that would allow leaders to seduce the masses into fighting, or as fuel that stoked popular outrage. There is no denying it: nationalism has got a bad name.

But this negative publicity confuses what is more often than not an innocuous sentiment. Nationalism is a feeling of unity with a group beyond one's immediate family and friends. In and of itself, it is not conducive to disastrous wars. The bad rap on nationalism relies almost exclusively on cherry-picked exceptions. These conclusions were drawn without considering the far-more-common cases in which nationalism was not the root of some evil. Moreover, many previous studies on the causes of war lacked one key component: an adequate measure of nationalism. Absent this measure, it is impossible to tell if the brand of nationalism of, say, the Axis powers was more intense than others in the years leading up to 1939. Yet, scholars are quick to blame nationalism for a host of ills.

Why this haste? Part of the reason lies in the scholarly reverence to homo economicus, the cool-headed and self-interested person thought to make optimal decisions at all times. This assumed rational egoist stands in direct opposition to the stereotypical nationalist. After all, the nationalist is often anything but coolheaded. And, being willing to die for his compatriots if need be, he isn't selfish either. Thus, many scholars conclude, if nationalism does exist, it would only disturb the God-given rationality of humanity, and that meant trouble in politics and economics.

But the deeper roots of antinationalism seem to lie in the value system of scholars. Success in academia is often gauged by how coldly logical one can be. Intense emotional content is frowned upon. So your run-of-the-mill academic, devoted to library stays, will naturally view nationalism as unintelligent and primal. And being so, nationalism could not possibly produce better countries. Or could it?

MY NATION, MYSELF

Modern political science generally holds that nationalism predisposes a nation's members to see outsiders as potentially inferior and evil. This perception is supposed to make it easier for nationalists to, say, curtail trade with others and even wage war. But there is a problem with this logic. If nothing else, nationalism is a sense of collective unity that turns large groups into extended families. In itself, this says nothing about how one nation should treat another. In everyday life, we usually love and identify with our own family. That certainly does not make us believe that neighboring families pose a threat. The same goes for nationalism. It does not manufacture hatred for others, just concern for one's fellow citizens. By believing that everyone is in a national endeavor together, citizens value each other’s welfare as well as their own. In other words, nationalism makes people less selfish. Granted, the altruism that nationalism provides is not the cosmopolitan sort that philosophers dream about. Members of a nation may not care about all the people in the world, but they do exhibit a selective altruism in caring about their fellow compatriots. And this selective altruism, when shared by all citizens, makes for a better country than one populated by purely selfish individuals.

Consider economic life, where self-interest is assumed to reign supreme. Any economy comprises millions of everyday transactions. In many of these transactions, a citizen can easily shortchange another and get away with it. Yes, cheaters are somewhat deterred by the law and the fear of gaining a bad reputation. But there are many ways to skim off the top without getting caught. A simple case: Your favorite restaurant can charge you higher prices -- say, from a few cents to a dollar -- than those printed on the menu. If caught, your waiter can say it was a mistake. But how many people ever bother to remember the exact menu prices when the bill lands on the table? Very few, if any. This window of opportunity for cheating exists in thousands of activities in every conceivable industry. And if citizens actually exploited it, interpersonal trust would disintegrate. Business activity would slow to an inefficient crawl as people spent additional time and effort deterring cheaters.

On the other hand, when citizens are nationalistic, those who might cheat will face an unpleasant trade-off: to help themselves at the expense of their brethren. Surely, nationalism will never stop all cheating. But in countries with a mature sense of nationalism, this trade-off will significantly discourage cheating and promote economic growth. Meanwhile, without nationalism, citizens do not hesitate to abuse each other, and the threat of underhanded cheating destroys the trust necessary for economic development. One need only recall the fall of the Soviet Union and how the crisis of national identity suffered by its citizens presaged endemic corruption and economic underdevelopment across the post-Soviet states. In cases such as these, the economy degenerates into a swarm of flies, with each citizen relatively oblivious to others' welfare. By contrast, the nationalist economy resembles a colony of bees, with members mindful of the group’s well-being.

THE CASE FOR NATIONALISM

The benefits of nationalism could have just remained another untested theory in the pantheon of social science. But today, we have the tools to test it systematically. Using data from the International Social Survey Programme (ISSP), we can track levels of nationalism across countries. In 1995 and 2003, the Norway-based ISSP carried out surveys of national identity across 23 and 34 countries, respectively, ranging from established democracies like Australia and the United States to younger ones such as the Czech Republic and Slovakia. In the polls, people were asked about the degree to which they agreed that their country is better than most. The stronger this sense of national superiority, the higher the level of nationalism.

One finding is immediately apparent: Across the board, countries with a higher average level of nationalism were consistently wealthier. This evidence flies in the face of the antinationalism harbored by many economists. In truth, though, the problem with many poorer countries is that their citizens are not nationalistic enough. Consider Eastern European states such as Latvia and Slovenia, which many fear contain the seeds of hypernationalism. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, these countries are actually among the least nationalistic of the group. And rich Western countries, such as Australia, Canada, and the United States, score as the most nationalistic. It's a fair bet your economist never taught you that.

The virtues of nationalism also transcend citizens' bank accounts. If nationalism fosters altruism, its effects should be visible in political and social life as well. Consider corruption. Research in this area is still relatively scant, but it is apparent that there is a broad relationship between nationalism and the ability to keep corruption in check. Using corruption estimates from the World Bank and the same survey data on nationalism, another positive effect of nationalism emerges: Corruption is consistently lower in countries with higher levels of nationalism.

How does nationalism reduce corruption? For many of the same reasons that it improves the economy. Just like parties to a business transaction, public servants who contemplate corruption face an unsavory trade-off: to profit at the expense of fellow nationals. So, if bureaucrats are highly nationalistic, they are also more sensitive to any damage to society, and less prone to abuse public office. Nationalism also changes the mind-set of those affected by corruption. A nationalistic public is less likely to accept government corruption and simply look the other way. On the other hand, without nationalism, the purely selfish citizen might not care about corruption at all. To this person, the diluted cost of corruption in his or her life is minimal compared with the effort required to fight it. But a nationalistic citizenry gauges the effect of corruption on the entire nation, and this greater concern for potential abuse triggers the collective response that keeps corruption in check.

In social life, too, nationalism makes its presence felt. As nationalistic citizens care more about each other, they are less likely to break the law and violate the rights of others. Using World Bank data on citizens' adherence to laws, another striking relationship becomes evident. The countries endowed with a higher level of nationalism tend to have a stronger rule of law. For all nationalism's supposed faults, it is incredibly -- and consistently -- associated with things we value in economics, politics, and society.

CLEARING THE RECORD

So what about the cases of nationalism gone bad? Do they tell us anything useful? Yes and no. From power-hungry Napoleonic France to Serbia during the 1990s, these cases show that nationalist aberrations are possible only when other forces are at play. One such factor is military power. When technological advances and military tactics allow for the easy conquest of other countries, nationalism might be tempted to expand. In the 19th century, the many innovations of Napoleon’s Grand Army -- such as fast and flexible troop formations with fully integrated artillery -- convinced the French nation that expansion was a viable proposition. Similarly, Adolf Hitler exploited German nationalism at a time when blitzkrieg tactics could prove devastating.

Nationalism can also be dangerous whenever a single territory is contested by many nations, especially when there is a history of violence among them. When these conditions exist, as in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, civil war is a real possibility. Young democracies are also at a higher risk of virulent nationalism. In these democratizing states, ambitious leaders might pursue risky strategies -- such as invading a neighbor -- to boost the immature nationalism of their people for their own motives. And nationalism can turn ugly if it mixes with a belief that one’s nation is beyond any standard of morality. That was possibly the case of Nazi Germany, because the German people's love for their nation was not counterbalanced by a moral doctrine that valued self-control and compassion.

However, the important thing about these unsavory forms of nationalism is how rare and sporadic they really are. To cite a few cases as proof that nationalism is always harmful or barbaric is to confuse the exception with the rule. Most developed strains of nationalism do not promote aggressive expansionism or the abuse of minorities within their borders. That is because contemporary nations are usually missing these other, high-risk conditions. They exist in a world where war is expensive, borders are largely settled, and the actions of nations are usually tied to some moral code. As a result, nationalism today often leads citizens to look inward and focus their energies on bettering their countries.

If social science is to gain relevance beyond the ivory tower, it must help derive policies that make the most of a country's assets. With nationalism, this is clearly not happening. What's worse, instead of seeing its potential for progress, scholars largely dismiss nationalism as an ill. To be sure, the broad relationships outlined here ought to be further dissected. Perhaps nationalism does not matter much when we account for a host of other factors, such as educational levels and natural resources. A debate could be had about whether nationalism is helpful or simply harmless. At the very least, though, we must move past the simplistic notion that nationalism is only dangerous. What it is, is misunderstood.

Of course, scholars can persist in looking down on nationalism as a backward, unevolved reflex, and governments could continue to fail to develop policies that harness its potential. But this alternative carries a heavy cost. It allows opportunistic leaders and demagogues to control the future of nationalism. If responsible policymakers have in their hands something proven to encourage increased wealth, lower levels of corruption, and higher obedience to the rule of law, they would only be wise to use it.