Americans are happier than ever before, and it’s all thanks to Ronald Reagan. This unexpected finding comes to us thanks to a study from the University of Warwick, in England.
The Warwick researchers measured happiness by identifying, in over eight million of the books that have been digitized by Google Books, words that reflect mood. Words like “sunny” or “cheerful” or “joyful” were categorized as happy, while words like “miserable” or “sad” or “wretched” were categorized as unhappy. The researchers then chronicled the use of such words in books that have been published, since 1820, in the U.S., the UK, Germany, and Italy.
The Warwick researchers assumed that, in happy times and in happy places, books would carry more happy words. And vice versa. To verify their hunch, the researchers calibrated their findings against other indices of happiness such as the United Nations’ World Happiness Report or the Eurobarometer survey of the European Commission, which asks respondents if they are “very satisfied,” “fairly satisfied,” “not very satisfied,” or “not at all satisfied” with the lives they lead.
Having shown good correlations with current data, the Warwick researchers felt confident in studying books dating back to 1820, making allowance for words such as “gay” that might have changed their meaning. And the results were intriguing.
Some findings were unexceptional: namely, that Americans were unhappy during the Civil War, the Great War, the Great Depression, and World War II. Otherwise, though, we’ve consistently been a cheerful bunch of souls, stoically refusing to grumble while getting on with the business of transforming our continent into the greatest and richest on earth. With one exception. We hated the Bretton Woods years.
This seems perverse, for the Bretton Woods years of 1944–73 were objectively the best, not just in American but in Western history. It was at Bretton Woods, in New Hampshire, in 1944, that the British economist Maynard Keynes persuaded the Western powers to abandon globalization, laissez faire, and free trade. Instead, Keynes persuaded them to run their economies as stand-alone, very highly taxed, semi-socialist entities.
Yet, counterintuitively perhaps, those were the best years the Western powers ever enjoyed economically. Not only were their rates of economic growth fabulous but their extra wealth was also distributed equitably. Indeed, so happy were the French, Germans, and Italians, they refer to those years as les trente glorieuses, the Wirtschaftswunder, and the boom economic respectively. That era ended only after the Arabs, in 1973 and 1979, imposed successive oil embargoes, and after JFK, LBJ, and Nixon debauched the dollar with reckless inflation.
Why did Americans dislike those years? The answer probably does not lie in Vietnam, for the British also disliked the Bretton Woods years, yet they didn’t go to Vietnam. The Warwick data show, moreover, that things started to improve, happiness-wise, both in the U.S. and in the UK, not after the Americans left Vietnam but after Reagan and Thatcher came to power, in 1980 and 1979 respectively.
Objectively, Reagan and Thatcher could have been labeled disasters for ordinary people because they raised interest rates, raised regressive taxes, cut progressive taxes, and opened the borders not only to immigrants but also to goods, services, and capital. All these measures undermined ordinary people — indeed, as Thomas Piketty showed in his 2013 book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Reagan and Thatcher inaugurated the vast inequalities against which AOC and her colleagues on the left now inveigh so bitterly. Yet Americans en masse became … happier!
How? There can be only one answer: that Americans, and their fellow Anglo-Saxons the British, value freedom more than they value equality. There are different capitalisms. In Nordic or Scandinavian capitalism, almost everyone is a member of a trade union. In Rhenish or German capitalism, employees are fully represented on the supervisory boards of public companies. And those are relatively egalitarian societies. But in Anglo-Saxon capitalism, the devil takes the hindmost, and that’s how we like it.
We don’t want to be like those goody-goody continental Europeans in their self-disciplined corporate regimentation; we’d prefer to be freer and unburdened by rules and regulations. And if the price we pay for that freedom is a lower material standard of living, well at least we’re being true to our berserk anarchical Beowulf cultural roots. So the bureaucrat who comes for our guns or our God will have to pry them from our cold dead hands, for that’s who we are, and that’s why we have no Hitler or Mussolini in our history.
The freedom-loving perversity of the Anglo-Saxons presents a problem for the Left, for it inhibits ordinary folk from voting in their own material interests. But it does confer on their societies a priceless love of liberty.
Terence Kealey is an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and a professor of clinical biochemistry at the University of Buckingham in the United Kingdom, where he served as vice chancellor until 2014.