Thursday, June 24, 2004

Creating a Market for Happiness and Well-Being

A concern that many people have about market mechanisms is the fear that, given the opportunity, people will choose poorly and make themselves miserable rather than happy and well. In addition observers often note that an increase in income does not necessarily lead to an increase in happiness or wisdom. Finally, there is a common perception that market activities focus human attention on short-term stimulations rather than on sources of long-term well-being. For those people who care most about human happiness and well-being, these three facts often convince them that an increase in market activity will result in an increase in human misery rather than an increase in human happiness and well-being.

I used to share these concerns myself. I certainly care more about human happiness and well-being than I do about markets.

The most succinct understanding of markets is that they are a source of creative destruction. It is undeniable that "the system of natural liberty," in Adam Smith's language, results in rapid change. Communities are destroyed, traditional ways of life are destroyed, small farmers and store owners find they can no longer make a living in the old ways. Again, many find the destruction so painful that they are hostile to markets.

There are two parts of creative destruction: creation and destruction. The destruction aspect is clear. Creation is obvious in most technological areas: machinery, electronics, aircraft, materials science, medical technology, drugs and medications, etc. Creation is also obvious in entertainment: television, movies, videos, computer games, gambling, pornography, nightclubs, resorts, cruise lines, theme parks, etc. all flourish in a market economy.

The area in which market creation is least obvious is in areas specifically addressing long-term happiness and well-being. It does appear as if markets specialize in short-term stimulations.

This appearance, however, is misleading. After fifteen years of in-the-trenches experience in education, I have finally realized that the reason that markets do, in fact, specialize in short-term stimulations is because markets in long-term well-being are illegal. We need to legalize markets in well-being.

I exaggerate somewhat. For many people, churches provide an important source of happiness and well-being. I am not one of those. I have found a market in well-being through teachers and practitioners of tai chi, meditation, energy therapy, cranio-sacral therapy, bodywork, men's groups, musical groups, alternative educators, outdoors groups, etc. Indeed, I realize that there are thousands of practitioners of wonderful, healthy, exciting, innovative ways of living who are eager to share their expertise. In addition, health food stores such as Whole Foods are flourishing; healthy restaurants are springing up everywhere; bookstores are larger and more diverse than ever; fitness and health clubs are ubiquitous; and people are hanging out at coffee shops instead of bars.

How can I claim that we need to legalize markets in well-being? Because I am certain that all of these positive trends would grow considerably faster and have a much deeper social impact if markets in education and health care were liberated.

I have spent the past fifteen years creating schools that teach happiness and well-being. The obstacles against doing so are enormous. Public schools teach misery and meaninglessness (This is the real message of the Columbine massacre). We need to free parents and educators to create schools at which young people can develop healthy habits and positive attitudes. I pay property taxes to supports schools to which I would never send my own children because they would be trained in cruelty and bad habits there. Meanwhile the healthy schools that I create can barely survive financially because all parents are forced to subsidize the cruelty factories known as public schools.

Nearly 100% of my health care costs for my family are alternative health costs that are not covered by insurance. Meanwhile I pay $6,000 per year for insurance that, while useful in the case of catastrophic illness, I never use. Two-thirds the cost of health care in the U.S. goes to pay for chronic illness most of which can be avoided by lifestyle choices. While paying $2000 per year to alternative health providers that I can't afford (and I would like to spend an additional $2000 per year on alternative health), I am paying $4,000 per year to pay for the costs of people who eat poorly, don't exercise, smoke, drink, etc. Because I can't spend the money on taking care of myself that I would like, I live less well than I know that I should. When I receive bodywork I am less likely to eat poorly and drink alcohol. I live in a world in which bad habits pay and good habits are penalized.

My personal experiences with respect to education and health care are tiny vignettes that illustrate a profound truth about our society: by maintaining government control over health care and education, we have created a world in which there is a thriving market in short-stimulations but one in which long-term happiness and well-being suffers. Surprising though it may be, the best solution to the market's current focus on short-term stimulation is to liberate education, health care, and community creation.

Future posts will show in greater detail how we can thereby create thriving markets in happiness and well-being.