Chapter 11: The Pursuit of Happiness

It was the late 1600s when Richard Cumberland and John Locke were promoting the idea that the well-being of our fellow humans is essential to the “pursuit of our own happiness”1 and that “the highest perfection of intellectual nature lies in a careful and constant pursuit of true and solid happiness.”2 It was such a strong idea that was integrated into the United States Declaration of Independence, and is considered by some as part of one of the most well-crafted, influential sentences in the history of the English language.3 Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness are listed among the unalienable rights of all people, and such ideas transcend American society. But rights are not rights if people don't have the same opportunity to exercise them. In that case, they are no longer rights, they are privileges. And privileges can bought and sold, just like anything else. So, forget what I think, forget what you think, and let?s just look at the facts.

As we have seen, there is solid research showing that social and economic inequalities are structural. That means if you are born poor, you are likely to stay poor, even if you work your ass off 12 hours a day. Similarly, if you are born rich, you are likely to stay rich.

In view of these findings the exaltation of the exceptional cases of slumdogs who became millionaires, promoted by the media, can only be considered to be a sick and unfair con – a fairy tale for the gullible, a cruel game that reinforces the status quo, leaving the poor to battle against each other for scraps while the richest can enjoy the copious meal.

Sure, some people are still successful. If you are really smart, very good at direct marketing, and you build strong social connections, you might end up making a lot of money. But for every one that makes it, a thousand will fail. It is just the nature of the system.

Let us examine an example. Camden, New Jersey, is a small city of little more than 70 thousand people. It is, pro capita, the poorest city in the US. It is also the most dangerous. In 2008, Camden had the highest crime rate in the US with 2,333 violent crimes per 100,000 people while the national average was 455 per 100,000. The city’s real unemployment is difficult to determine, but it is probably around 30 - 40%. 70% of high school kids drop out and only 13% of students manage to pass the state’s proficiency exams in math. The coming years expect to see draconian budget cuts and layoffs of nearly half the police force. Reporter Chris Hedges writes:4

“Camden is where those discarded as human refuse are dumped, along with the physical refuse of postindustrial America. A sprawling sewage treatment plant on forty acres of riverfront land processes 58 million gallons of wastewater a day for Camden County. The stench of sewage lingers in the streets. There is a huge trash-burning plant that releases noxious clouds, a prison, a massive cement plant and mountains of scrap metal feeding into a giant shredder. The city is scarred with several thousand decaying abandoned row houses; the skeletal remains of windowless brick factories and gutted gas stations; overgrown vacant lots filled with garbage and old tires; neglected, weed-filled cemeteries; and boarded-up store fronts. Corruption is rampant, with three mayors sent to prison in a little more than two decades. Five police officers, two of whom are out on bail and three of whom have pleaded guilty, have been charged with planting evidence, making false arrests and trading drugs for information from prostitutes.”

How can the people of Camden possibly pursue their happiness? What liberty do they have? They have only three liberties: the liberty to become criminals, the liberty to be victims of criminals, and the liberty to leave town. Now, imagine a whole region like Camden, or even an entire nation. There is very little people can do when faced with such adversities, especially because they do not know any better and they don?t have a chance to receive a good education. So, they respond with what they know: various forms of tribalism (gangs, prostitution, drugs, petty crimes). Is it their fault? Hardly. They were conned, divested of their dignity, and robbed of their chance to pursue happiness. Their feeble, angry voices remain unheard; their hands soaked with the blood of lost opportunities.

Martin Luther King Jr. said: “It may well be that we will have to repent in this generation. Not merely for the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around and say, ’Wait on time”’.5 A generation has passed and we are still sitting around. Our technology could allow us to bring about the greatest transformation in history, where all 7 billion people have the same opportunity to pursue their happiness, fairly. But we are sitting around, watching American Idol,6or killing each other at the mall on Black Friday to get stuff that we will throw away in a week.7

One of the problems is that we still believe in the myth that a willingness to work hard will be rewarded – which may have been true a century ago, when the economy was based on real goods and corporate powers and financial institutions were not running the game. But today, it is merely a veil of illusion, a one-line sound bite, a marketing tool to keep people believing the impossible, the unachievable. The reason for the persistence of this delusion is mainly because we do not want to believe otherwise. We refuse to accept the notion that we cannot make our situation better, and that is because we aspire to be like “them.” We would like to be in “the club.” In fact, that is the main value that we have been indoctrinated with since birth, almost everywhere, across borders, across cultures, across religions, across languages. The universal value that is inexorably rooted in our minds is to become successful. And by successful we mean, of course, well-placed in the financial and social arena. And if we become successful, it must be because we deserved it. The more we worked , the wealthier we became.

There is undoubtedly a group of people that belongs to this category – business geniuses, inventors, and innovators whom we hold in high esteem and wish to emulate. These are the brilliant minds that have brought about disruptive change, be it in design, technology, business, the arts, politics or society. But there is also another of group of people who did not earn their position, and it may be significantly larger than you would think.

If hard work meant that we could all be wealthy then we would have a plethora of millionaire African women. This is what author George Monbiot had to say:8

“The claims that the ultra-rich 1% make for themselves – that they are possessed of unique intelligence or creativity or drive – are examples of the self-attribution fallacy. This means crediting yourself with outcomes for which you weren’t responsible. Many of those who are rich today got there because they were able to capture certain jobs. This capture owes less to talent and intelligence than to a combination of the ruthless exploitation of others and accidents of birth, as such jobs are taken disproportionately by people born in certain places and into certain classes.”

Psychologist and Nobel prize-winner for economics Daniel Kahneman discovered that the apparent success of the ultra-rich is just a cognitive illusion. He analysed the results achieved by 25 wealth advisers across eight years and found that the consistency of their performance was zero. “The results resembled what you would expect from a dice-rolling contest, not a game of skill.” Those who received the biggest bonuses simply got lucky. These are not isolated results, as they have been widely replicated. They show that traders and fund managers throughout Wall Street receive their massive remuneration for doing no better than would a chimpanzee flipping a coin. When Kahneman tried to point this out, they blanked him. “The illusion of skill …is deeply ingrained in their culture.”9

But it does not end there. In a study published by the journal Psychology, Crime and Law, Belinda Board and Katarina Fritzon tested 39 senior managers and chief executives from leading British businesses. Broadmoor special hospital is a place where people with serious mental illness who have been convicted of serious crimes are incarcerated. Board and Fritzon tested both patients and bosses for certain indicators of psychopathy. The results were astonishing. The bosses’ scores either matched or exceeded those of the patients who had been diagnosed with psychopathic personality disorders. It turns out that these psychopathic traits closely resemble the characteristics that companies look for – great skill in flattering and manipulating powerful people, egocentricity, a strong sense of entitlement, and a readiness to exploit others. Finally, and possibly the most revealing, is lack of empathy and conscience, which doesn?t hinder their careers, but instead may even help them climb the ladder of success.10

Paul Babiak and Robert Hare point out in their book Snakes in Suits that the old corporate bureaucracies have been replaced by flexible, ever-changing structures. Team players are deemed less valuable than competitive risk-takers and psychopathic traits are more likely to be selected and rewarded. Their conclusion appears quite dark and disheartening. If you have psychopathic tendencies and are born to a poor family, you are likely to go to prison. If you have psychopathic tendencies and are born to a rich family, you are likely to go to business school. This does not mean that all executives are psychopaths ? many of them are very decent people – but it seems clear that for the past few decades the economy has been rewarding the wrong skills.

The world has changed a lot in the past fifty years. We used to work to make what we needed to live better, but we no longer do that. We used to think about what we were doing, now we mostly follow orders, even if they make no sense. Today, most of the economy is a ’ghost economy’ of financial transactions, profit-maximisation schemes and computer algorithms, with little regard to their consequences. We allowed power to be accrued in the hands of a very few to the point of insanity. Today, a small group of 147 mega transnational corporations form a giant bow-tie structure, an economic super-entity that controls 40% of the entire world.11

What have we become?


1A Treatise of the Laws of Nature, Richard Cumberland, 2005. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund. pp. 523-24.

2Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Book 2, Chapter 21, Section 51, John Locke, 1690.

3Justifying America: The Declaration of Independence as a Rhetorical Document, Stephen Lucas in Thomas W. Benson, ed., American Rhetoric: Context and Criticism, 1989.

4City of Ruins, Chris Hedges, 2010. The Nation.

5Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution, Martin Luther King Jr., 31 March 1968, sermon at the National Cathedral; published in A Testament of Hope, 1986

6American Idol has consistently been the most popular show in the recent history of American television.

7Several acts of violence were reported on Black Friday over the course of the past few years.

8The 1% are the very best destroyers of wealth the world has ever seen, George Monbiot, 2011. The Guardian.

9How cognitive illusions blind us to reason, Daniel Kahneman, 2011. The Guardian.

10Disordered Personalities at Work, Belinda Jane Board and Katarina Fritzon, 2005. Psychology, Crime & Law, Vol. 11(1). pp. 17-32.

11The network of global corporate control, Stefania Vitali, James B. Glattfelder, and Stefano Battiston, 2011. ETH Zurich, Kreuzplatz 5, 8032 Zurich, Switzerland.

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