Since Thomas More first coined the phrase “utopia” in his eponymous book, idealists, realists, and cynics alike have been fascinated with the possibility creating an ideal society. We have exhaustively explored the concept in fictional and critical contexts, with utopias at the focus of numerous works of literature, film, and scholarship. Various subcultural groups, such as the shakers and transcendentalists in the 19th century, attempted to create insular utopian communities. The evident human fascination with utopia raises numerous questions: can a utopian society be actualized? Is it possible for humans, with their diverse interests and often selfish needs, to coexist in an ideal setting, developing a socio-political structure that is desirable to all?
Past attempts at creating utopian communities tells us that the likely answer to this question is ‘no’, but that doesn’t mean that some societies come closer to a utopian state than others. In my paper, I will examine factors that contribute to quality of life within a society and attempt to determine the effect of political structure (ie, monarchy versus democracy) on the happiness of citizens. In any given nation, the government will be ultimate agent for controlling factors such as crime rates, employment, respect for human rights, and access to health care and education, all of which will impact the quality of life for citizens within that state. By examining aspects such as these across the globe, research groups have for more than two decades attempted to quantify the average happiness of citizens within different nations to determine which places on earth are the best or worst to live. The end result of this research is a series of annual lists that rank the countries on earth in order of the average happiness of their citizens. These “Best and Worst Nations to Live In” lists are released annually and often given perfunctory coverage in magazines or news programs. Discussion of these rankings within the media is superficial at best, with no attempts to understand the methodology for rankings or the implications that they carry. It is understandable to be skeptical of the idea of quantifying a concept as intangible as happiness, but I believe that these rankings carry implications that are not examined in the media – for example, they contain unexamined truths about the effect of government on quality of life. In order to examine the effect of political structure on happiness of citizens, I will use these rankings as a starting point for my research and compare the nations that rank highest as the most desirable to live in and compare them with the nations that rank the lowest. I will attempt to answer the following questions: which political systems lead to the happiest citizens? Why is this so? I will then compare my findings to the utopian societies described by More and Plato to see whether their ideas have been realized – or could be realized – in the modern world.
My standard for this paper will be the 2011 index compiled by the United Nations (UN). United Nations is an international organization that operates with funding from 34 member countries. Among other initiatives, the UN has compiled a wealth of statistical information to compile its rankings, and as a non-for profit organization without any governmental affiliation, the UN can be trusted to give unbiased and objective statistics and other information. Using these indexes as a starting point, I will delve deeper into investigating the factors that contribute to or detract from quality of life, such as protection of rights, employment rates, and access to healthcare, and more. For this information, I will draw from research conducted by organizations such as Human Rights Watch, the Organizatoin for Economic Cooperation and Development (OEDC), Partners In Health, and Journalists without Borders. All data generated by these organizations is published on their websites and available for the public to download and use as research. When comparing nations, I will use a methodology similar to that used by sociologist Max Weber when conducting his comparative historical analyses to determine the causes of the industrial revolution. Professor Stephen Kalberg details Weber’s methodology in his recent book Max Weber’s Historical analysis, which I have checked out from the library. I will also draw from the ideas of philosopher John Rawles, in particular his “veil of ignorance” thought experiment, and the societies described by Plato in The Republic and Thomas More in Utopia. Criticism of Rawles, Plato, and More can be found in numerous books in the dickinson library or through the library’s databases.
Plato. The Republic. Translated by Benjamin Jowett. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 2000.
More, Thomas. Utopia. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1997.
United Nations Development Reports. United Nations. Last modified November 2, 2011, http://hdr.undp.org/en/statistics/
This website is the hub for all of the statistics compiled by UN researchers each year. This page contains the most recent ranking for human development and happiness (completed in 2011) as well as individual country profiles with access to statistics and ratings concerning factors such as health, poverty, inequality and education. This resource will be highly valuable to me in comparing specific aspects that affect quality of life within different countries.
Human Rights Watch World Report. Human Rights Watch. Accessed September 30, 2012. http://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/wr2010.pdf
Reporters without Borders Press Freedom Index. Reporters Without Borders. Accessed September 30, 2012. http://en.rsf.org/press-freedom-index-2011-2012,1043.html
Kalberg, Stephen. Max Weber’s Comparative Historical Analysis Today. Burlington: Ashgate, 2012.
This recent book by sociologist Stephen Kalberg deconstructs the methodology used by Max Weber when he conducted his comparative historical analysis in the 19th century. Kalberg applies Marx’s methodology to his own comparative analysis, tracing forces such as the singularity in american culture and the foundations of modern citizenship. Kalberg’s book will allow me to use Weber’s methodology to determine the relationship between political structure and individual happiness. It will offer a comprehensive guide when researching and writing my paper.
Firth, David and Marshall, Gordon. “Social Mobility and Personal Satisfaction: Evidence from Ten Countries.” The British Journal of Sociology 50, no. 1 (1999): 28-48. http://www.jstor.org/stable/522763
de Vries, Willem F. M.. “Meaningful Measures: Indicators on Progress, Progress on Indicators.” International Statistical Review 69, no. 2 (2001): 313-331. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1403818