Glad to Be Unhappy

Some people in liberal societies are unhappy. But what exactly does this tell us?

Ross Douthat has made an interesting observation on Twitter a couple of days ago: “The biggest challenge for liberalism is the genuine unhappiness of a lot of people under the conditions of liberalism.” I’m not sure that this is right ― liberalism might be facing greater challenges now ― but let’s assume that it is. The implications of this claim are worth thinking through; they might be rather different than many, Mr. Douthat perhaps among them, might assume.

First, at the risk of being tart, if the biggest challenge a philosophy is facing is that its application makes people unhappy, that’s not such a bad problem to have. The application of most political philosophies makes an awful lot of people not just unhappy, but dead. If the worst liberalism can do to you is make you miserable ― as opposed to immiserated, like socialism, whether of left-wing or or of right-wing varieties ― that’s actually a point in favour of liberalism.

Second, we have to ask why people are unhappy about living “under conditions of liberalism”. Mr. Douthat seems to point to people annoyed at being bossed around by technocrats and to those developing harmful addictions, perhaps due to a lack of attachments and meaning in their lives. But these things are by no means peculiar problems of liberalism. Socialist systems are also dominated by technocrats; in militarized or religious authoritarian systems, the social scientists and planners are replaced by generals or priests, who boss people around just as much. And while illiberal societies may foster the social bonds that will help some people relate to their fellows, they will destroy others ― typically, those running across the boundaries of class, race, and country.

To say that people are unhappy “under conditions of liberalism” is to point to a correlation, not a causal relationship. And it is not clear that a causal relationship could fairly be established at all. As I have noted in a previous discussion of liberalism here, “critics of liberalism are often confused, or obfuscating, about its nature: it is a political, not a moral, philosophy; a theory of how political power should be organized, not of how to live a good life”. Nor does it tell people how to be happy; only that they have an inalienable right to try. It is hardly a fair criticism of liberalism that it does not achieve something that it does not attempt.

Besides, when reflecting on the real or alleged failings of liberalism, one should keep in mind the ills of its alternatives. If some people struggle in the open liberal society, others would chafe under the oppressive restrictions of an illiberal one. There is a seen-and-unseen issue here: living “under conditions of liberalism” we see those whom they do not suit. We do not see as clearly those who could thrive under no other “conditions”―indeed, those whom the masters of an illiberal society would seek to eliminate.

The people who aspired to command illiberal societies are, indeed, another group that is unhappy under liberalism. So long as liberal institutions hold, they are unable to impose their own preferences on society, either because they can’t get them democratically enacted or because these preferences, however popular, are incompatible with liberal freedoms enshrined in binding constitutions. But I don’t think that their unhappiness should count for much. Those who would rule others by censorship, manipulation, or force deserve no sympathy from those whom they would rule.

A consideration of alternatives to liberalism also brings us to the third point I wish to make in response to Mr. Douthat. Liberal societies are the only ones in which unhappiness at the state of society and indeed at life, the universe, and everything can really be expressed. This is so for two reasons, one of which is obvious, and the other less so.

The obvious one in any but the liberal societies, unhappiness with the established order ― again, not just the established political order, but also the established order of things more broadly ― is treated not merely as an intellectual challenge but as a heresy, a thoughtcrime, or a form of treason to the nation. In illiberal societies, by contrast, expressions of disaffection are actually suppressed ― and, often, the person expressing such unhappiness is suppressed (or at least forced to repent or “re-educated”) along with his or her ideas. By contrast, illiberal societies might make room for private sorrows, but only within an overall worldview that says that, at a high enough level of abstraction, things are just as they ought to be.

I should note here that some unserious people affect to think that discontent with the existing state of affairs cannot be freely expressed in modern-day liberal societies. These societies are certainly not flawless ― not least thanks to the pressure of their illiberal members. But such claims are nonetheless preposterous. One sign of this is that they tend to be freely made on the same social media platforms that are supposed to be suppressing dissent against liberalism. Meanwhile, in Canada, what is by all accounts a very disruptive political protest is ongoing blocks away from the seat of government, with minimal police reaction.

The subtler yet more fundamental reason why liberalism uniquely enables not only the expression but perhaps the very existence of unhappiness with the world is that to become unhappy one has to be able to develop a personal scale of values against which the world fails to measure up. If one’s values are the same as everyone’s, as illiberal societies tend to make them, they will integrate the answers to any concerns with the world supplied by the prevailing ideology. If one has no genuine values to speak of at all ― as is the case for the average citizen, and especially for the politicized one, under totalitarianism, as Hayek pointed out ― one has no means to critique the world.

One writer who understood this essential relationship between freedom and unhappiness is Milan Kundera, in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. He wrote that (I translate from the French, which itself is a translation from the original Czech, so… not ideal) “communism, fascism, all occupations and all invasions hide a more fundamental and universal evil; its image was the parade of people who march, arms raised, shouting the same syllables in unison”. People can only be made to march in this way by what Kundera calls the kitsch ― the “aesthetic ideal” of “a world in which shit is denied and where all act as if it did not exist”, which can sustain “categorical agreement with being”. Under liberalism,

where many currents [of thought] exist and the influence of one cancels or limits that of the others one can just about escape the inquisition of the kitsch. … But where one political movement holds all power, one finds oneself at once in the realm of totalitarian kitsch.


All that breaks with kitsch is banished: any manifestation of individualism (for any dissonance is like a slap in the face of the smiling brotherhood), any scepticism (for he who begins by doubting the smallest detail will end doubt doubting life as such), irony (because in the realm of kitsch, everything must be taken seriously.

The open existence of unhappiness ― it’s not being packed away to “the gulag [which] can be understood as the septic tank into which totalitarian kitsch casts is rubbish” ― is only possible in a free society. It is not so much a challenge for liberalism as its crowning achievement. We should be glad to be unhappy. It means we are free.