Why Yes, I Do Love Life

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Jason Kuznicki

Jason Kuznicki is a research fellow at the Cato Institute and contributor of Cato Unbound. He's on twitter as JasonKuznicki. His interests include political theory and history.

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  1. Avatar Christopher Carr
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    says:

    Jason, I enjoyed this tremendously. Lots of food for thought here. I guess I’ve never thought about it before, but it seems to me that people must be a lot happier today than they were in the past, even if they cannot appreciate it. Although I’m considering the possibility that it may be an absurd comparison.Report

    • Avatar MikeSchilling in reply to Christopher Carr
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      says:

      I think it is absurd, like concluding that someone living in pretty dire straits nowadays should be thrilled because he’s richer in absolute terms than Louis XIV.Report

      • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to MikeSchilling
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        says:

        Well, which one would you choose? I’m not in any doubts at all.

        On reflection this is not to say that the poor person today is happier. His situation may be preferable, while happiness may depend — as Pascal suggests — on factors that are more or less independent of material goods.Report

        • Avatar Kimmi in reply to Jason Kuznicki
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          says:

          There are plenty of folks who would rather be Louis XIV than get the next cure for cancer (or whatnot, presumably involving stem cells).Report

        • Avatar MikeSchilling in reply to Jason Kuznicki
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          says:

          I have no desire to run an entire country, but for people who do, that’s even better than an iPod.Report

        • Avatar Pyre in reply to Jason Kuznicki
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          says:

          I suspect that I’m one of those who would have been happier to have been born in an earlier age.Report

          • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Pyre
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            says:

            There’s a trifle of Orwell’s of which you reminded me just now.

            A Happy Vicar I Might Have Been
            (a little poem written in 1935)

            A happy vicar I might have been
            Two hundred years ago
            To preach upon eternal doom
            And watch my walnuts grow;

            But born, alas, in an evil time,
            I missed that pleasant haven,
            For the hair has grown on my upper lip
            And the clergy are all clean-shaven.

            And later still the times were good,
            We were so easy to please,
            We rocked our troubled thoughts to sleep
            On the bosoms of the trees.

            All ignorant we dared to own
            The joys we now dissemble;
            The greenfinch on the apple bough
            Could make my enemies tremble.

            But girl’s bellies and apricots,
            Roach in a shaded stream,
            Horses, ducks in flight at dawn,
            All these are a dream.

            It is forbidden to dream again;
            We maim our joys or hide them:
            Horses are made of chromium steel
            And little fat men shall ride them.

            I am the worm who never turned,
            The eunuch without a harem;
            Between the priest and the commissar
            I walk like Eugene Aram;

            And the commissar is telling my fortune
            While the radio plays,
            But the priest has promised an Austin Seven,
            For Duggie always pays.

            I dreamt I dwelt in marble halls,
            And woke to find it true;
            I wasn’t born for an age like this;
            Was Smith? Was Jones? Were you?
            Report

          • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Pyre
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            says:

            Miniver Cheevy, child of scorn,
            Grew lean while he assailed the seasons;
            He wept that he was ever born,
            And he had reasons.

            Miniver loved the days of old
            When swords were bright and steeds were prancing;
            The vision of a warrior bold
            Would set him dancing.

            Miniver sighed for what was not,
            And dreamed, and rested from his labors;
            He dreamed of Thebes and Camelot,
            And Priam’s neighbors.

            Minever mourned the ripe renown
            That made so many a name so fragrant;
            He mourned Romance, now on the town,
            And Art, a vagrant.

            Minever loved the Medici,
            Albeit he had never seen one;
            He would have sinned incessantly
            Could he have been one.

            Miniver cursed the commonplace
            And eyed a khaki suit with loathing;
            He missed the mediæval grace
            Of iron clothing.

            Miniver scorned the gold he sought,
            But sore annoyed was he without it;
            Miniver thought, and thought, and thought,
            And thought about it.

            Miniver Cheevy, born too late,
            Scratched his head and kept on thinking;
            Miniver coughed, and called it fate,
            And kept on drinking.

            -E.A. RobinsonReport

            • Avatar MikeSchilling in reply to BlaiseP
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              says:

              Alfred Bester wrote a story called “Hobson’s Choice”, which explains where the people you see cadging quarters and cigarettes come from: they’re Time Bums, who time-travelled to their personal Golden Ages, not realizing how useless they’d be not having grown up with any of the necessary skills, and hopelessly trying to save up the money to go back.Report

        • Avatar Christopher Carr in reply to Jason Kuznicki
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          says:

          Someday in all likelihood we’ll look back at asthma like we now look back at polio. I had asthma when I was a kid: I couldn’t play sports, the other kids teased me, I was hospitalized constantly, my grades did actually suffer from it, and it probably permanently damaged my health, but I know I’d be a different person if it were not for asthma. Asthma in many regards shaped the adult I became and this for the better: I had lots of time to read books and developed refined senses of both patience and resistance to panic.

          After taking medicine every day and resigning myself to the fact that I’d have to take medicine every day for the rest of my life, suddenly last summer after coming back to the U.S. I noticed that I had been exhibiting no symptoms of asthma and I’ve been officially asthma-free for just over a year now. Looking back I’m glad I had such severe asthma, and I wouldn’t trade it for a life without asthma.

          The epicurean concept of happiness is wrong. It is the stoics who’ve got it right – at least for me – and this makes me wonder if we really are “happier” today than we were in the past.Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to MikeSchilling
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        says:

        In the summer, the French court would evacuate from Versailles. The stench of the privies eventually overpowered their perfumes. Off they’d go in great wagons and carriages to other, less-stencheous chateaus.Report

      • Avatar James Vonder Haar in reply to MikeSchilling
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        says:

        A friend of mine made the same point to me about my most recent angsty post. It’s a fair point, I think. You can’t bury your feelings with a tide of analysis about the economics of the past, but it’s good to be reminded every once in awhile that that crippling unemployment for me means time to blog, not starvation.Report

  2. Avatar Jaybird
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    says:

    people must be a lot happier today than they were in the past, even if they cannot appreciate it

    If there’s one lesson to be taught by unimaginable wealth and luxury and leisure it’s this: You can get used to anything.Report

  3. Avatar Levi John Wolf
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    says:

    Wonderful.

    One quick thing: In the first four lines, you have the hipster (“Up here?”) responding to the hipster (“Same as always”). Did you intend for Pasteur or Pascal to be on one of those lines?Report

  4. Avatar DensityDuck
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    says:

    There’s always going to be someone who reads a post like this and thinks “oh, sure, some white boy telling me racism doesn’t matter because we have refrigerators”.Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to DensityDuck
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      says:

      You’re no doubt correct.

      But it’s funny. I intended this post as a partial retraction or a problematizing of the idea that we are happier today. Or that “happiness” and “getting what you desire” map very well onto one another at all.

      I have strong preferences about when I would like to live, for example. Let me live as late as possible; I’m an optimist, and I’d gladly fast forward 500 years if I could.

      But afterward, would I be happier? I’d have a preference of mine fulfilled, and if I’m right about the direction of history, I would also be a lot more materially comfortable now than today. (In part, I expect we’ll have biological immortality by then.) But still — happiness might be another creature entirely.

      None of which is to say that our preferences for material abundance are wrong. They are what they are, and in particular, with the health conditions I have, I would find it horrible to live in the seventeenth century. To go the rest of my life short of breath and wheezing from asthma? Sick every spring and fall from allergies? When pneumonia set in, as inevitably it would, I doubt I’d last very long.Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Jason Kuznicki
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        says:

        Were time travel possible, I would never travel farther back than the widespread adoption of the flush toilet.Report

      • Avatar Morat20 in reply to Jason Kuznicki
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        says:

        And yet, equally so, you might be far happier a hundred years from now — when your asthma was cured by a bit of viral tinkering with your immune system responses.

        You can say “happiness is relative” — and indeed, the poor now would MUCH prefer to be poor now than poor then…or poor in America as opposed to poor in Ethiopa (although they might also prefer to be poor in England or Holland to America).

        But more than anything — they’d prefer not to be poor at all. And saying “Oh, but you’re so much better off here than there, now rather than then” — does not make them any less poor, nor their lives any easier.

        I have no doubt that a black man sitting in a Georgia jail right now — and I have heard many horrible, horrible things about jails in Georgia and Mississippi — would probably rather be incarcerated in what’s the closest thing America has to a hell-hole than be a slave 300 years ago.

        But try telling him he should shut up and ignore his heatstroke, because at least Master ain’t gonna whip him for laziness and ain’t gonna rape his wife tonight? Well, you deserved the butt-kicking you’re about to receive.

        Happiness is relative — and it’s relative to “here and now” and people trying to make it relative to “then and there” are just SOL on general principles. (And wrong on basic logic. A family of four making 12k a year in America is poor, regardless of whether or not they have a fridge.)Report

        • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Morat20
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          says:

          And yet, equally so, you might be far happier a hundred years from now…

          I expect I would, as I suggested.

          I have no doubt that a black man sitting in a Georgia jail right now — and I have heard many horrible, horrible things about jails in Georgia and Mississippi — would probably rather be incarcerated in what’s the closest thing America has to a hell-hole than be a slave 300 years ago.

          I have very, very, very often argued at this blog that we incarcerate far more people than we should, that our justice system is functionally racist, and that prison conditions are often appalling.

          If I am not permitted to occasionally observe some form of improvement in some social conditions — well, what would you have me do? Just pretend that everything was uniformly bad until last Tuesday, when suddenly we discovered Progress?Report

          • Avatar Morat20 in reply to Jason Kuznicki
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            says:

            I’m all for it. 🙂 I am, as a child of the 20th century, thrilled to freakin’ death that I was born when I was.

            As is my father, who has outlived his own father by a good two decades now — because of better medicine. (Where his father had a quadruple bypass he never really recovered from, my father had a stent. Where my father had a stent, I’m fully aware of a genetic legacy towards blood clots and a particular pernancious little protein that mimics bad cholesteral — but isn’t routinely screened for. Where my father had micro-strokes that left him with a permanent tremble in one hand, I hope to have none….)

            The only thing better than living now would be living a century from now — assuming we haven’t wrecked the place. 🙂 Although perhaps too far and I shall find the world uncomfortable and difficult to adjust to, so I suspect there is a limit to how far I might like to be catapulted.

            (Views on race, gender, sexual orientation spring to mind as things that have changed greatly over the last several generations).

            I suppose I am just prone to seeing “Better now than then! Be happy with what you have!” not as general advice on “it could be worse” or even “count your blessings” but as “Shut up and stop rocking the boat, it could be worse”.

            Progress is something you work towards, agitate towards, bleed and sweat for. Whether it’s the progress of generations — today’s poor having TV’s that would be beyond the means of the wealthy of a generation or two ago — or the progress of a lifetime (trying to NOT be dirt poor. Trying to make a better life).

            I don’t like the habitual way that argument is deployed — “We don’t have poverty, because the poor have iPods, they are immeasureable wealthy!”. No, they’re not. They’re still poor. Their lives are still hard. Telling them to suck it up is telling them — and society itself — not to progress. Not to do better.

            Because you like it just as it is, and you don’t want the boat rocket.

            (You is not you, specifically. You is, in generally, those deploying the beloved “Poor have TVs, they are not poor and should shut up and pay a higher tax rate than Bill Gates” types. )Report

            • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Morat20
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              says:

              “Better now than then! Be happy with what you have!”

              I only see myself as saying the first, not the second. Though in objective terms I would prefer to be poor today rather than king of France in the 17th century, this doesn’t make being poor happy or wonderful. It just makes the 17th century a lot more miserable than we are used to thinking about.Report

            • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to Morat20
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              says:

              The point is that it’s not invalid to make a distinction between, figuratively, the black guy dying of heatstroke and a teenager complaining that the air-conditioner isn’t cooling the room off fast enough.Report

              • Avatar Morat20 in reply to DensityDuck
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                says:

                Very true. But on the other hand it IS totally invalid to say:

                “X isn’t poor, because by the standards of [time period that isn’t now] or [place that isn’t here], X is rich”.

                Because, you know, X ain’t living then or there.

                And as the father of a soon-to-be-driving teen who is devestated, DEVESTATED that the car he will have access to is a 10 year old Beetle (girly!) in the uncool shade of Silver, I can assure you I have plenty of experience with the fine line between griping and legitimate complaints.

                (Not to mention, he’s so off base! Sure it’s a ten year old Beetle that my wife was not the kindest too, but it’s got less than 50k miles on it and is the turbo version. As soon as I get the brakes redone and the sunroof drains fixed, that baby’s golden. At least as golden as “free car” gets. Well, free car when it’s available).Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Morat20
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                says:

                As the father of a boy who was similarly “devastated” to drive his father’s Honda Civic, I learned this was only a negotiating tactic. He came to love that Civic and drove it far longer than he should have.Report

  5. Avatar Ryan Noonan
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    says:

    A hipster who’s read the Bible?Report

  6. Avatar Maribou
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    says:

    I am perhaps a terrible person, because I didn’t bother thinking very hard about this philosophically – o lazy me! – but I think it is wonderfully witty, so I read it all the way through just for the hilarity factor.

    “VOLTAIRE: How do they come to suspect that the children will be happy? Have the Americans been reading… Leibniz?” was merely the first of several times that I snorted and had to sternly counsel myself that I am working a public service desk and really couldn’t be dissolving into giggles.Report

  7. Avatar James Vonder Haar
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    says:

    These dialogues are one of my favorite things at the League. They’re witty, well-written, thought provoking, and leave me with a faint glimmer of melancholic cheerfulness. Thank you.Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to James Vonder Haar
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      says:

      Thank you. Though the amount that I’m actually ripping off Voltaire does make me slightly ashamed. There’s not a whole lot here that’s not to be found in either Candide or Micromegas. Or “Le Mondain,” for that matter.Report

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