Venezuelans are, by nature, a happy and optimistic people. The country regularly tops happiness rankings, and anyone who has visited the country understands why, as most Venezuelans seem cheerful and upbeat.
Currently, though, Venezuelans are facing numerous problems: a soaring crime rate, faltering public services, a scarcity of basic staples, and increased social tensions. Worried about the effect of this on the country's cheerfulness, the Venezuelan government has taken an extraordinary, and some would say unusual, step: creating a national office for happiness.
According to official press reports, the Vice-Ministry for Supreme Social Happiness of the People (its official name) will serve as an umbrella group for various social programs. Most of them deal with early childhood, culture, race relations, youth, the elderly, and people with disabilities.
The announcement was immediately seized upon by its critics. Sarcastic Twitter users immediately created a hashtag called #SupremaFelicidadEs (which appears in the photo above), using it to complain about everything from not finding toilet paper on store shelves to notoriously sluggish Internet speeds.
The idea of public policies geared toward happiness is not completely insane. A few years ago, the Asian nation of Bhutan began calculating a Happiness Index. Ever since then, the topic has gotten more serious consideration: the World Happiness Report, for example, is put out by Columbia University's Earth Institute. As Jeffrey Sachs, one of the report's co-authors, writes:
"A generation of studies by psychologists, economists, pollsters, sociologists, and others has shown that happiness, though indeed a subjective experience, can be objectively measured, assessed, correlated with observable brain functions, and related to the characteristics of an individual and the society. Asking people whether they are happy, or satisfied with their lives, offers important information about the society. It can signal underlying crises or hidden strengths. It can suggest the need for change."
In spite of these lofty ideas, the government's initiative does not entail an original way of looking at the needs of the population. Rather, it is an exercise in bureaucratic reshuffling and re-branding. What the government has done is take a myriad of social programs whose impact is not known, placed them under a single umbrella agency, and given that agency a "happy" name.
The Venezuelan happiness office underscores the importance of bureaucracy to the Bolivarian Revolution. Every major initiative the government has undertaken, from social programs to supporting the oil industry, has meant expanding the role of the state and minimizing civil society involvement. As a result, the government's payroll has gone from 1.3 million in 2002 to 2.4 million in 2012, making it one of the largest in the region. In Venezuela, 20 percent of the work force labors for the state. In neighboring Colombia, the percentage is 3.9 percent.
The creation of this new government body underscores the extent to which the government equates "happiness" with participating in welfare programs. As noted Venezuelan sociologist Colette Capriles points out, the move to put an individual goal (happiness) in a collective bureaucracy "is in line with the totalitarian inclinations of the government, which seeks to invade all aspects of privacy, including the concept of happiness. There is a tendency to transform the individual experience into a collective one, regulated by the State."
Finally, the politics of this move is clearly not advantageous for the government. A government that is supposedly concerned with "happiness" is at odds with the policies most people blame for causing crime and scarcity. The contradiction lends support to the opposition's message that the government is out of touch with the problems of ordinary citizens.
In his landmark novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell created government bureaucracies with high-sounding names that completely contradicted their actual functions. As part of his "doublethink," the Ministry of Peace was in charge of war, and the Ministry of Love was tasked with dealing with dissent.
While the Vice-Ministry for Supreme Social Happiness is in its infancy, its sole existence stands as a worthy homage to the great British thinker, perhaps marking one more step in Venezuela's full descent into an Orwellian state.
Transitions is the group blog of the Democracy Lab channel, a collaboration between Foreign Policy and the Legatum Institute.