Bigger Government Makes for More Satisfied People


August 15, 2014
Brain & Behavior

People living in countries with governments that spend more on social services report being more contented, according to a Baylor University study.

“The effect of state intervention into the economy equals or exceeds marriage or employment status — two traditional predictors of happiness — when it comes to satisfaction,” said Patrick Flavin, Ph.D., assistant professor of political science in Baylor’s College of Arts & Sciences.

The study — “Assessing the Impact of the Size and Scope of Government on Human Well-Being” — is published in the journal Social Forces. The researchers analyzed data from 21 advanced industrialized countries collected by the World Values Survey from 1981 to 2007, with nearly 50,000 respondents.

The Great Recession from December 2007 to June 2009 heightened debate about how much governments should intervene into the market economy. Conservatives and right-leaning political parties tend to champion free market capitalism and are critical of government intervention, maintaining it can lead to inefficiency and waste that hurts employment, wages, and economic growth. By contrast, left-leaning political parties and labor organizations argue for more intervention into the market to even out the ups and downs of the business cycle, Flavin said.

“We assessed respondents’ subjective well-being using a very straightforward question: ‘All things considered, how satisfied are you with your life as a whole these days?’” Flavin said. On a scale of 1 to 10 — with 10 the highest level of satisfaction — the average rating for all respondents for the duration of the survey was 7.48. The United States was ranked at No. 11 out of 21 countries on the list, with an average rating of 7.61.

Four measures of government policies were used by Flavin and co-researchers at the University of Notre Dame and Texas A&M University:

• The overall size of government consumption as a percentage of national gross domestic product.

• Social welfare expenditures as a percentage of the gross domestic product.

• Welfare state generosity measured in terms of the ease of access to welfare benefits, the expansiveness of coverage to citizens of different statuses and life circumstances, and the degree to which social benefits replace incomes lost due to unemployment, retirement, or family circumstances.

• Labor market regulations governing such circumstances as job dismissals, temporary employment, and mass layoffs.

The study’s findings held true regardless of whether respondents were rich or poor. The researchers also ruled out alternative explanations such as an individual’s health, education level, and marital status as well as the gross national product and unemployment rate of the country that he or she lives in.

“Are we saying we need a bigger government to be happier? No. Instead, our goal is to objectively examine the data and let people draw their own conclusions,” Flavin said.

“If anything, this study is a conversation-starter about what role we envision for government in our lives and the advantages and disadvantages of government intervention into the market economy.”

Countries ranked from most to least satisfied — with 10 the highest level of satisfaction — included:

• Denmark: 8.20

• Switzerland: 8.10

• Iceland: 8.04

• Ireland: 7.95

• Austria: 7.95

• Finland: 7.82

• Sweden: 7.82

• Canada: 7.82

• Norway: 7.78

• Netherlands: 7.76

• United States: 7.61

• Australia: 7.58

• Great Britain: 7.51

• Belgium: 7.49

• Germany: 7.08

• Italy: 7.05

• Portugal: 7.05

• Spain: 6.96

• France: 6.85

• Greece: 6.67

• Japan: 6.63

Co-researchers were Benjamin Radcliff, Ph.D., professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame; and Alexander C. Pacek, Ph.D., associate professor of political science at Texas A&M University.


Bigger Government Makes for More Satisfied People

3 Responses to Bigger Government Makes for More Satisfied People

  1. mindbreaker August 15, 2014 at 5:16 pm #

    The list is somewhat meaningless without the accompanying figures for number of government employees, or social services expenditure, or whatever. Are we supposed to just know that off the top of our heads?

    It also serves to hide any inconsistency. I generally find the inconsistencies at least as interesting as the trend.

    If you go by social services expenditure then only rich countries are likely to be able to afford large expenditures. That may lead to distortions as rich people tend to be happier.

    If you go by number of government employees then you have to wonder how much military employees contribute to society directly, as they are basically an insurance policy that only kicks in if a country is under threat rather than something that serves people daily in a noticeable way.

    Recently they discovered a genetic basis to Danish happiness. So you can’t really use that one.

    Social services also serve as an attractor for immigration legal or not. This can make it very difficult for first world countries bordering third world countries to provide as much as those who only have other first world neighbors.

    Recent natural disasters, unpleasant climate, the relative success of traditional enemies, I think, all affect general happiness.

    Demographics matter too. Old people tend to be less happy. Probably primarily hormones, but pain, degraded senses (blindness and tinnitus are real bummers), and mental decline is no picnic. Even if you control for age, you have to consider that attitudes are contagious and if one is surrounded by crabby people one might not be as happy. Societies that respect their elders and interact with them regularly might ironically be less happy. Though, I visited my grand parents nearly every week of my life until they passed, those were positive experiences…so it is just an idea, not a suggestion to stay away.

    I also wonder about how news is presented. If that is constantly negative, it may be more difficult to stay optimistic and happy. For the US at least, I think our negative press is pervasive. We take the burden of all the world’s problems like they are ours to solve…it is not just our government that has a finger in every pie, but the press that tries to make it our responsibility, as well as other countries, because we tried to help before, we are now supposedly responsible.

  2. JF August 15, 2014 at 4:16 pm #

    Now that’s science! Hey, maybe because in the top countries they have more vacation time.

  3. dormand August 15, 2014 at 8:22 am #

    I have not studied the source study that resulted in this summary piece, but I would seriously doubt the validity of the study.

    The factor that improves satisfaction is competence and effectiveness of the governance, not the size of the governing body.

    I suggest that further research would find that those governments delivering the highest level of satisfaction would tend to be smaller, highly participative and exceptionally effective.

    If you were to study the governance of The City of Dallas following the agreement of Texas Instruments CEO J. Erik Jonnson to step in and serve as Mayor after the incumbent mayor resigned to run for Congress, you would find exceptional levels of effectiveness and satisfaction.

    Mayor Jonnson initiated the Goals for Dallas program which gathered input from over 100,000 citizens as to the priorities for Dallas.

    The Goals for Dallas became the operating guideline for the City and had nearly universal buy-in due the broadest participation in its design.

    Dallas became known globally as “The City That Works”, as many problems were resolved by entry level city employees, who had been trained and empowered to achieve those objectives clearly spelled out in The Goals for Dallas.

    There was exceptional harmony among government employees, the business sector, the educational sector and the citizen/taxpayers who covered the cost of the government.

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