Why glorification of wealth does not build happy societies

Why glorification of wealth does not build happy societies
A general view shows commercial and residential buildings in Hong Kong on April 14, 2015

Society has been seduced to enter a world in which wealth, and the status attached to it, are equated with success and happiness. If we consider its toll on our natural environment and its longer term unsustainability, this very notion of universalizing affluence becomes highly suspect.

It is a psychological fact that above a certain level of prosperity additional material wealth no longer offers additional happiness. Even those conservatives, who judge the imperatives of economic growth to be irresistible, cannot sanctify the fiction that such growth has furthered the cause of human happiness. Assuming certain basic needs are met, can we really state convincingly that our present day urbanites are in general happier than their predecessors who lived closer to nature? Without glorifying pre-industrial society, it must be acknowledged that in modern times overall human happiness and the prosperity of societies have not progressed in tandem.

The principles of meritocracy, where differences in individual ability generate differences in personal wealth in accordance to individual contributions, have received an increasingly broader acceptance. A reasonable wealth differentiation serves as an incentive to drive entrepreneurship and innovation. However, an excessively wide wealth gap weakens the cohesiveness of a society as it leads to the creation of a powerless and disgruntled class of people. At the same time another group of individuals amasses wealth disproportionate to their numbers. Often this accumulation of wealth turns into greed in the misguided belief that it brings progressive happiness in memory of the joy of the first pot of gold earned. Benchmarked against the societies of Northern Europe, where the wealth gap is low but innovation and entrepreneurship comparatively high, an Asian society like Hong Kong still has far to go.

A first step for Hong Kong and similar higher-income Asian societies would be to recognise what generates true human happiness and stop the glorification of material wealth. The Gini index of most wealthy Asian societies is ranked in the same league as under-developed societies in sub-Saharan Africa. In the midst of glamour of luxury properties and expensive cars, poverty is still prevalent. Many single earner families in Hong Kong are still living off monthly incomes insufficient to fully support the basic needs of their families. Without much or any government subsidies too many retirees are forced to take odd jobs to sustain themselves, and many families have to turn to charities to make ends meet.

So what does build happiness? This is a question which cannot be answered in a universal way. There are as many goals in human society as there are people failing and succeeding to attain them. Happiness is found in the ability of individuals or groups of likeminded individuals to reach fulfillment, to achieve their individual destinies and successfully play out the stories of their lives. Government policy should therefore not be informed by a triumphalist belief that government can secure the conditions for the successful pursuit of happiness. The task of government is to bolster those institutions and forms of life which enable the sorrows of humanity to be endured in a meaningful and dignified manner. It has the responsibility to protect and shelter the vulnerable, to provide and enlarge opportunities for the disadvantaged, to promote the conservation and renewal of the natural and human environment, and to assist in the rejuvenation of civil society and reproduction of a common culture to allow for pluralism and diversity without enmity and division.

This type of pluralist government assumes the existence of multiple value systems in society without applying hierarchy to weigh or rank. It is the aim of pluralist government not to impose any universal value set up on society, but to craft a modus vivendi between diverse value systems to ensure a harmonious co-existence. While pluralist government can be liberal as appropriate, it does not claim liberal values to be exclusive nor universal. In certain situations non-liberal ways can be used to promote stability. A good example of this is the prohibition of singular religious education to people before the age of maturity to prevent extremism. A pluralist government focused on the maximum level of happiness of each of its members in society is for this reason not necessarily a liberal government. But neither is it a non-liberal form of government.

To foster a harmonious pluralistic society, government has to implement an education of self-discovery and knowledge on each of its members. It has to build an infrastructure which allows each value system to flourish within the limits of a basic universal morality, including the prevention of the systemic disruptions caused by wealth amassing individuals. A pluralistic government has to build a culture where reason dominates the blind pursuit of wealth, where prudence with the use of our finite resources rules, where the beauty of each value system is made visible and where no single value system can make claims of universal validity.

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