Mr Huet telephoned me earlier today in a sweat about something he had just read in the newspapers. Apparently, the Government is considering whether to add the teaching of happiness to the National Curriculum. According to a report in The Independent on Sunday,
“Lessons in happiness are to be introduced for 11-year-olds in state schools to combat a huge rise in depression, self-harm and anti-social behaviour among young people [...]
“Lessons using cognitive behavioural therapy techniques will include role play designed to help children build up their self-esteem, challenge negative ways of thinking and express their thoughts clearly [...]
“They will also be shown special breathing exercises to keep them calm when their parents are arguing and avoid blaming themselves for situations that are beyond their control, for example, the fact that their parents may be divorcing [...] The anti-depression classes, due to be introduced in South Tyneside, Manchester and one rural location, have been approved by Lord Layard, the Government’s "happiness" tsar.”
I can see why Mr Huet was so angry. It is not the function of government to tell people how to be happy. It is not within the ability of governments to teach us these things. If governments wish us to be happy, the most they can and ought to do is create the conditions in which we can most effectively make ourselves happy.
Indeed, I go further. The most a government can and ought to do is remove the conditions it has created that prevent us from making ourselves happy in the manners of our choice. It should cut taxes and government spending. It should abolish the regulations it has made on our activities. It should provide a framework of laws within which our rights to life, liberty and property are effectively protected.
Beyond that, governments should go no further. We are all different as individuals. Only we as individuals can know what is likely to make us happy. Only we can pursue our own individual happiness. Any government that believes itself to know better than we do ourselves how to make us happy is guilty of a most presumptuous arrogance. Any government that tries to put its belief into action is by definition tyrannical. Its means must entail a searching inquisition into our thoughts and a close control over our actions.
Where children are concerned, governments may try to excuse themselves by insisting that here we have individuals whose capacity for rational action has yet to be properly formed, and so interference is legitimate.
This is a false excuse. Most children have parents to look after them. Some of these parents may be grossly negligent in their duties. They are, even so, better guardians than politicians and bureaucrats. They know the abilities and desires of their children better than remote strangers. The bonds of nature give them a stronger and more permanent interest in the wellbeing of their children than can be claimed by even the most benevolent stranger.
The truth is that this proposed change to the National Curriculum has far less to do with developing children as autonomous individuals than with brainwashing them into obedient sheep as adults. These lessons in happiness will inevitably turn into propaganda sessions in which children will be lectured into a celebration of the moral sewer than our masters have made of modern England. They will be told that our enlarged, activist state is a good thing. They will be told that the denigration of our history and customs is a release from the dead hand of the past. They will be told that anyone who doubts that the highly taxed and regulated multicultural police state in which we live in the best of all possible worlds, and that anyone who disagrees is either mad or evil.
It does seem that modern children are less happy than Mr Huet and I contrived to be in the 1970s. That seems to have less to do with transient misfortunes in their home lives than the utter chaos to which this Labour Government – not forgetting its Conservative predecessors – has reduced the country.
We live in a country where strangers and criminals have more rights than we have; where our votes, once we reach the age of majority, are worthless to change our rulers, or even hold them to account; and where our lifestyle choices are constrained as they never were in the past. Children have not the same perspective on these changes as have we who are now in middle age. They have not the same narrative in their heads of how a free constitution has been perverted into a recipe for despotism. But they perceive enough to be unhappy. And this unhappiness is manifested in behaviour damaging to others and destructive of their own future well-being.
Of course, none of these complaints will register with our masters. Happiness will be taught in the schools. In time, I suspect we shall even have a Ministry of Happiness – much as we now have a Ministry of Culture. All that will save us is the fact that nothing modern government attempts achieves its stated or its real ends. Schools that cannot teach reading and basic arithmetic cannot teach happiness, and probably will not propagandise effectively for the established order. As for any further initiatives, they will also fail.
However, let them end in success or in failure – these measures will undoubtedly add to the taxes I must pay and diminish from the already shrunken legacy of freedom I inherit from my ancestors.
PS – Sean Gabb’s novel The Column of Phocas is published on the 4th August 2006. Advanced copies can be ordered here.