How much are we willing to pay for the pursuit of happiness?

Research by Notre Dame political scientist Benjamin Radcliff suggests that social programs produce a happier population.

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Never mind the conventional speculation about whether the resolution of some political standoff in Washington favors Republicans or Democrats, liberals or conservatives, "entitlement" fans or skeptics.

The more fundamental question, says Benjamin Radcliff, is this: Does it make people happier or not?

Radcliff is a political scientist at Notre Dame whose work places him in the forefront of what might be labeled happiness studies. His particular corner of the field looks at social policies and political outcomes. It's an ambitious study, as is shown by the title of his book, published this year: "The Political Economy of Human Happiness: How Voters' Choices Determine the Quality of Life."

It's also an important study, in a political environment where the cost and benefits of social programs are on the table as never before. Social Security and Medicare are again on the table in fiscal negotiations on Capitol Hill. The Affordable Care Act, which represents the largest restructuring of a social service since the 1960s, is being intensely debated in households and news programs across the nation, though invariably not with the depth and understanding it deserves.

Radcliff's research suggests that higher levels of social programs produce a happier population and that public policies such as social insurance and strong labor market protections are among the most important factors.

"The differences in your feeling of well-being living in a Scandinavian country (where welfare programs are large) versus the U.S. are going to be larger than the individual factors in your life," he says. "The political differences trump all the individual things you're supposed to do to make yourself happier — to have fulfilling personal relationships, to have a job, to have more income. All those individual factors get swamped by the political factors. Countries with high levels of gross domestic product consumed by government have higher levels of personal satisfaction."

Or as Radcliff put it in a CNN op-ed: "The 'nanny state' works."

Statistics bear him out. In the 2013 World Happiness Report, published by the UN and compiled by Jeffrey D. Sachs of Columbia University and colleagues from the London School of Economics and the University of British Columbia, four of the top five rankings are occupied by Denmark, Norway, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Sweden, all countries with strong social programs. The U.S. ranks 17th, suggesting that Americans are happy, just not as happy as they could be. Where the U.S. tends to fall short of the leaders is in measurements of social support, "freedom to make life choices," healthy life expectancy and perceptions of corruption.

These measurements do raise the question of what it means to be "happy" and how to place a number on it. Scholars in the field rely on survey questions that boil down to "how satisfied people are with their lives," Radcliff says. Experts grapple with whether people actually know how happy they are and whether they're willing to tell the truth on surveys. "There's good reason to be a little skeptical about studying happiness in this way," Radcliff says, "but it's pretty clear now that we can do this and it works."

As Radcliff observes in his book, moreover, Thomas Jefferson explicitly enshrined the concept of happiness — "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," to be precise — in the Declaration of Independence. To Radcliff that was a seminal moment in political history — founding an independent nation not merely on freedom from despotism but on the radical proposition that, as Radcliff writes, "ordinary people might realistically hope for a life they found satisfying, whole, and meaningful," whether they were farmers, laborers or merchants.

The concept of personal fulfillment even in the midst of toil was furthered in Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal by the brain truster Adolf Berle, an expert on the corporation's role in society. The flaw in Herbert Hoover's infatuation with "individualism," Berle told FDR during the 1932 presidential campaign, was that the great mass of workers didn't get to be individuals.

"Whatever the economic system does permit," he said, "it is not individualism. When nearly 70% of American industry is concentrated in the hands of 600 corporations, the individual man or woman has, in cold statistics, less than no chance at all…. What Mr. Hoover means by individualism is letting economic units do about what they please."

Berle proposed a "far truer individualism," which was translated in Roosevelt's inaugural address into an affirmation of "social values more noble than mere monetary profit."

The conservative counterargument is that government programs interfere with what should be the sole organizing principle of the economy: the market. Anything else, in the words of the conservative philosopher F.A. Hayek, places us on "the road to serfdom."

"That approach has a certain logical consistency," Radcliff agrees. "Their view is that the market consists of nothing but free individuals making free choices about what's best for them. But it ignores the reality that people don't face each other in the market as equals." Regulating the influence of market forces, he argues, increases people's ability to fulfill their own lives — a key determinant of happiness.

One obvious criticism of Radcliff's work is that it plays into a partisan narrative — Democrats good for happiness, Republicans bad. A similar objection was raised by a peer reviewer when he submitted his very first paper on the subject to the American Journal of Political Science, the leading publication in his field. "It came back with a two-line rejection," he says. "They called it 'simply an ideological project.'" The No. 2 journal, the American Political Science Review, accepted the same paper.

It's also proper to note that today's ideological lineup of the two parties doesn't fully reflect their historical positions. Republicans in general have always been rather more skeptical than Democrats about social insurance, but in the past they've been far more accepting than now.

A strong progressive Republican bloc supported Social Security at its inception in 1935. (And some of the harshest opposition came from Southern Democrats.) Dwight Eisenhower oversaw the program's largest expansion in benefits and beneficiaries, and a crucial fiscal rescue of the program was enacted under Ronald Reagan in 1983. The Great Society program of Democratic President Lyndon Johnson gave us Medicare, but it was Republicans who devised its expansive drug benefit, Part D, in 2003.

Our decades-long debate over Social Security and Medicare is now joined by a messy debate over Obamacare, its beneficiaries and its discontents. Underlying them all is the fact that the pursuit of happiness is established as one of America's founding principles. What we're really arguing about is how much to pay for it.

Michael Hiltzik's column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. Read his new blog, The Economy Hub, at latimes.com/business/hiltzik, reach him at mhiltzik@latimes.com, check out facebook.com/hiltzik and follow @hiltzikm on Twitter.

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