The Power of the Electronic Herd

In a widely publicized study carried out in the late 1950s and early 1960s, researchers asked citizens of more than a dozen countries around the world whether they were happy with their lives. While the answers indicated a wide range of attitudes within each country, the surprising result—which attracted much comment at the time, and for some years thereafter—was that, on average, the citizens of poor countries were no less satisfied than those of rich countries. Germany’s per capita income was four times Yugoslavia’s and fourteen times Nigeria’s, but Germans and Yugoslavians and Nigerians were all, on average, about equally happy.

A quarter-century later new researchers carried out a similar study. This time the results were dramatically different. Now the Swiss and Norwegians and Canadians were distinctly more satisfied than Germans and Belgians, and they were more satisfied than Italians and Spanish, who in turn were more satisfied than Greeks and Portuguese. The alignment with per capita income was not perfect (the Irish, for example, stood out by being much happier than their comparatively low income level alone would have suggested), but it was very close. Citizens of richer countries, on average, professed to be distinctly happier than those of poorer countries.

The most plausible explanation for this puzzling change is that while people in the pre-television era mostly compared themselves to their fellow countrymen, and felt either satisfied or frustrated depending on whether their own circumstances matched what they saw at close hand, once a new generation grew up watching TV it began to see things differently. Today almost everybody, almost everywhere, is familiar with at least the external appearance of middle-class living standards in the world’s advanced postindustrial democracies. And most people want to be part of whatever will give them access to that way of life.

Sharing the same economic space is often uncomfortable, and not just because people start comparing their own lot to what others have (or seem to have). Economic interdependence means having the opportunity to trade, but it also means facing the need to compete. Interdependence also poses the risk of catching other people’s economic diseases. Competition has winners but losers, too, and not everybody starts off on an equal footing. Often the reasons for that inequality are outside anyone’s control, but in other cases individuals or even entire countries can discard some of the practices and attitudes that slow them down economically. These choices can also be painful, however, since what looks like excess baggage from a competitive perspective is sometimes integral to people’s religion, or to the continuity of their cultural traditions, or to their sense of moral values.

It is useful, both intellectually and morally, to remember that not so long ago the United States was a newly developing nation, supplying easy-to-make goods to more advanced economies and competing, as many of today’s developing countries now do, on the basis of abundant resources and cheap labor. In the quarter-century before …

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