Kristof on Costa Rica

Yesterday, the New York Times published an op-ed piece by Nicholas Kristof in which he discusses the relative “happiness” of countries around the world, focusing primarily on Costa Rica, which ranks number one according to various indeces.  The World Happiness Index ranks the US 20th, with Togo and Tanzania coming in last; another study ranks America 19th and puts Zimbabwe at the bottom of the list.

Mr. Kristof argues that the main reason that Costa Ricans are so happy is that they have low levels of military spending (the country has no armed forces) and they invest a relatively large amount in education per capita, which in turn has led to political stability.  He also credits the nation’s environmental conservation efforts as a contributor to public contentment.  Based on this assumption, he argues that the US should spend less on defense (including foreign military assistance) and more on social programs like education.  He also suggests that America should do more to protect the environment.

I respect Mr. Kristof for his efforts to highlight humanitarian disasters and violations of human rights, particularly in Darfur, but his latest article is highly flawed.  Comparing the US with Costa Rica when it comes to military expenditures is nonsensical.  Costa Rica faces no serious internal or external threats, whereas America is responsible for underwriting international security and protecting the world’s oil supply, on which the global economy is dependent.  Partly as a consequence of America’s foreign policy commitments and interventions, terrorists and insurgents are determined to attack the US and its interests overseas, and policymakers have found it necessary to provide materiel and financial assistance to governments battling anti-American militants in places like Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen.  Withholding such aid could have disastrous consequences, and reducing the size and capability of the American military would undermine the liberal international order that Mr. Kristof claims to support.

Another weak point in his argument is his assertion that “happiness” is based on social spending.  He mentions that Mexico and Colombia rank higher than the US on happiness indeces, but both nations spend less on education and medical care than America, and they are also plagued by higher levels of drug-related violence.  He himself acknowledges that a “cultural emphasis on family and friends” might be responsible for the disparity in contentment; although such things are difficult to measure and his claim that Latin Americans value family and friends more than Americans is certainly disputable.  One thing that Mr. Kristof fails to note is that Latin Americans generally work fewer hours per week than Americans do (as do Europeans, who are reportedly “happier” than people in the US), which could be an important factor when it comes to reported personal satisfaction.

I am not suggesting that education and other forms of social spending are not important, or that federal and state governments in the US should not spend more in these areas (I believe they should).  I am merely saying that Mr. Kristof’s prescriptions for increasing “happiness” in America may not have the intended results  in light of geopolitical and social conditions. 

On a separate note, Mr. Kristof’s insistense that the US reduce military spending reinforces public perceptions that liberals are weak on national defense, which inhibits the electoral success of liberal candidates and inhibits their ability to promote the political causes that Mr. Kristof supports.

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