What’s wrong with the Layard Thesis?

Layard graph
Paul Frijtersâ inaugural post last week raised several interlocking issues around the theme of growth fetish. Iâd like to revisit one of them, namely the contribution of income to happiness. The timing is good, because one of our honours students is doing a dissertation on the topic. He and I are both sympathetic to the thesis outlined in Happiness: Lessons from a New Science by Richard Layard.

But we donât want to dodge any of the tough criticisms, so Iâd like help from readers in identifying the weaknesses in the theory, to help sharpen our arguments.

This is the thesis:

1. Happiness is a tangible component of human experience, and can be measured, reliably if not very precisely, by self-rated scores.

2. Humans are genetically programmed to pursue happiness. This is a survival mechanism: that is, things that make us happy are conducive to good health, a longer life, more babies and so on.

3. Cross country data shows pretty consistently that on average happiness increases with income, but at a certain point diminishing returns set in. In the developed world, people are not on average happier than they were in the 1960s.

4. In the short run, increasing income makes people happier, but the effect is short lasting for two reasons. First, we become quickly habituated to improved material circumstances, and their happiness returns to its original level. Second, we are hard-wired to be status conscious, so an increase in income only makes us happier until everyone else catches up.

5. Some variables have at least as large an impact on happiness but a more durable one than income: in particular, health, family relationships, employment, the level of trust in the community, and the degree of personal freedom.

6. In pursuit of the short term payoff we get from higher income, we tend to sacrifice health, family relationships and community building, and in doing so fail to maximise happiness in the long run.

7. Happiness is a self-evident good. Other things that are good, like freedom, morality or affluence, are ultimately justified in terms of their ability to make us happier. But happiness is an end in itself, and can’t be justified in terms of anything else.

8. The highest goal of government policies should be to make us happier on aggregate, and therefore some index of happiness rather than one of material production should be the benchmark of national performance.

For readers who are new to these arguments and eager to follow them up, there are useful links at the Wikipedia entry on Layard, especially his three Lionel Robbins lectures that formed the basis for the book.

But most Troppo readers are familiar with this line of argument. However, many — perhaps the majority — are unsympathetic to it, from what I’ve gathered. I want to exploit this, and get a sense of what they regard as the main stumbling blocks. Making a quick inventory, I’ve identified seven kinds of objections to this whole argument, which I have numbered A to G for easy reference:

A. Self-rated happiness is not a reliable indicator at all, and useless for comparing happiness between times, people and societies. People might say they are not happier than they were forty years ago, but perhaps they simply don’t remember correctly. Or in any case their expectations might be higher. That is, happiness itself may be subject to habituation in the same way that material comforts allegedly are; and in that case happiness is no more useful as a gauge of progress than the material comforts themselves are.

B. Where government actions produce winners and losers, there is no satisfactory way to determine the net benefit, because the happiness of two or more individuals cannot be aggregated. Society might arrive at a consensus as to who was most deserving – the poor more than the rich, the old more than the young, and so on – and devise a set of weights. But these would always be arbitrary, and certainly not self evident.

C. Even if the promotion of happiness is an important objective in the development of moral principles, legislation and public policy, it may conflict with other basic principles like truth, honesty, property rights, contractual obligations, and so on. Attempts to resolve this through a concept of rule utilitarianism are doomed to failure.

D. Freedom is more important than happiness. Each individual should judge what’s best for himself, and governments have to govern as if people were competent to pursue their own happiness, regardless of what the experts think. Paternalistic measures that modify people’s behaviour for their own good, can only be justified in the cases of children, convicted criminals, and the intellectually handicapped.

E. The empirical studies claiming to show that happiness doesn’t rise permanently with income are contradicted by others showing that it does.

F. Even if it’s true that our happiness is affected by other people’s income, this is not a healthy or noble motivation. Envy should never be a basis for public policy.

G. You only ever hear these arguments from people like Clive Hamilton and Ross Gittens who already have everything they want. The whole thing is just about rich, aging yuppy down-shifters projecting their own priorities onto everyone else.

These issues have been aired before on CT: Don Arthur puts a version of objection E; Ken Parish here and here seems in effect to interpret point 5 as a rebuttal of point 8, although I may not have understood correctly. And John Quiggin years ago challenged point 1. Other bloggers are sure to have taken up the topic, and I’d be grateful for any links.

If readers are good enough to respond in the comments box, I would like you to be as specific as possible which bits of the argument (1-8) you find unpersuasive, and why. Let me know whether your objections are covered in A-F — in which case you might like to flesh out or improve on my summary — or whether indeed there are additional counter-arguments that Iâve overlooked altogether.

As for objection G, Iâm only including it in case anyone thinks I havenât heard it before. I have, thanks (most recently from Gerard Henderson in a discussion on ABC radio), but it doesnât address the substance of the argument.

35 thoughts on “What’s wrong with the Layard Thesis?

  1. For me, objections F and C go together. Yes, where possible governments should do what they can to facilitate happiness but there is a limit to the extent that this can be done by micromanagement of the sort that would attempt to maximise happiness directly. Envy or to be more precise ‘psychic externalities’ (as opposed to physical externalities which are at least amenable to some quantification) should not be a basis for public policy because they give too much discretion to governments and bring with them accompanying complications of government becoming a ‘prize’ for capture, greater amenability to rent seeking and exploitation by the most vocal and well resourced interest groups, etc.

    Think of this as a ‘zen’ public policy approach towards happiness – by not aiming for it directly using the clumsy tool of government, much unhappiness can be avoided which might detract from the theoretical benefits of micromanaging our way there. B in this respect is almost an add on to F for me. The measurement problem adds to the general ‘public choice’ mess of pursuing Layardian utilitarianism over a Smithian rule-based utilitarianism but are not the most important elements of the objection.

    I’d also have a problem with 1 because I think different cultures may encourage different self-reporting patterns. Some cultures may encourage more modesty about self reported happiness and others less. I think this may account for the alleged discrepancies between developed and developing countries self reported happiness. And what if these cultural differences in fact translate into (to some extent) the level of economic development? e.g. if the cultures that find it easier to be happy tend to lack the qualities needed for rapid economic growth? Then the causation is turned on its head.

    (4) – I’m a bit dubious about the status conscious argument because I’ve never given a rat’s about what other people earn (argument from introspection). I’ve never understood those economic experiments where people would rather veto the other people getting $50 more if it means their getting nothing than get $10 more if everyone gets a $50 raise – I read about these and think these subjects must be dysfunctional sickos but maybe that’s just me.

    Also 5 contradicts 4 to some extent – how many workaholics enjoy their job and are working long hours as much because of their devotion to career/professional prestige as to pay off a mortgage?

  2. Contentions 1-4 are now in my estimation deemed standard and fairly uncontroversial in the literature. Contention 5 is hard because we dont really know whether people adapt to a lesser degree to some things. Some researchers think this is true, but some dont. There have for instance been studies claiming that people who became paraplegic reverted after 1 year to their happiness levels from before their health deterioration.
    Contention 6 is only true if people dont anticipate that they adapt AND if the levels of adaptation differ. I know of only 1 study into this and that one finds people fail to anticipate adaptions, but that there doesnt seem to be much difference in the degree of adaptation to changes over causes of change.
    7-8 are moral statements on which scientists in principle dont have more to say than any other unit of power in a country. I personally believe happines should be an important part of policy objectives, but concede that there is more to life than happiness and that people can consciously make choices that go against their own happiness which makes it hard to claim happiness should be the only object of policy.
    As to the objections, objection F is silly because it essentially means we shouldnt deal with people as they are but as we would like them to be. That’s not only extremely paternalistic with a hidden goal function, but its also doomed to failure because you will mispredict people’s reaction to policy.
    Objection E fails to miss the important twist, which is the very strong probability that people’s happiness to a large degree depends on their countries standing versus other countries, which makes it possible for happiness in one country to go up permanently with a general increase in income as long as the other countries dont catch up.
    Objection D has always struck me as an absurd one, because one person’s freedom is another person’s prison. I remember for instance a document written by the North American Indians to the president or congress, in which they express their disbelief that people could actually own the natural environment thereby denying others that same space and improsoning both the owners and the wildlife in it. I suppose I believe their basic contention that your freedom to unlimited and unique access to your property comes at the expense of my freedom. You need a weighing mechanism to decide between such conflicting freedoms, implying that freedom itself is not meaningful as a maximand.

    There’s a recent 65-page review by Andrew Clark (INSEE, Paris) and co-authors just on the issue of happiness and income that adresses contention 1-6 and the associated objections to them.

  3. Andrew Norton has a category for happiness and well-being at his blog. It only has a few articles. From memory, he had a similar category at Catallaxy when he blogged there. It had lots of posts. However I imagine they probably disappeared in their database crash. You could email Andrew about it.

    I’ll make a substantive comment later in the day if I get time.

  4. James,

    What is happiness? How does it relate to other concepts like pleasure, life satisfaction, self-actualisation etc? Is it possible for a sane person to not want to be happy or is that a contradiction in terms?

    Is it possible to tell whether another person is happy? And if it isn’t, how would anyone learn what the word ‘happy’ refers to?

    I’m stuggling with the idea of measuring something that nobody else can observe. If happiness is a private mental state then isn’t a happiness survey like asking people how tall they are over the phone? “On a scale of 1 to 10, how tall are you?” I’m sure you could produce nice graphs and get the results to correlate in interesting ways with other variables but….?

    A tape measure is an instrument. A survery question is…?

  5. Don has a good point. I’ve met some people who seem to be happy not being happy. Or to put it better, derive a lot of satisfaction from not being happy. It may be they get attention from others, or enjoy complaining so subconsciously seek out problems to complain about, or are emotional cripples that sabotage their opportunities for traditional happiness. How would/should government happiness policy deal with these Eeyores?

  6. What fatfingers said, there is a kind of cult of misery that can be tracked through certain strands of literature. Beware of masochists!

    So if a masochist asks you to beat them, what do you do?
    I suppose if you are kind person you will comply, but the sadist will sneeringly say “No I won’t!”.

    On a more serious note, Charles Murray has been onto this theme for years from a rather different angle – what has to happen for people to have meaningful lives when most of the challenges of survival have been solved? So most of us can assume that we will have lives of relative ease and comfort (an unprecedented situation by historical standards) without a huge struggle and certainly without physical danger.

  7. I think character is really given short shrift in this analysis. There are so many different kinds of people. You put two different people in the same situation and you can get two totally different happiness ratings from them. So externals are a chimera.

    I would say that Sadists are at a kind of emotional-null state. That is, they are so outside of happiness as a possibility, happiness only has relevance to them as it occurs or doesn’t occur or is destroyed in others’ lives. That is, as entertainment at a distance that provides satisfaction, rather than as something that engenders happiness per se. More a confirmation of a world view.

    Which leads me to this thought: People who are ideologically driven tend to be enormously unhappy, only finding solace when events confirm their bias. I would not call this confirmation happiness. This is why partisanship seeks the unhappy and, actually, seeks to make the content unhappy in order to garner followers.

    Which brings up the idea of false pursuit. I think people tend to see their lives in terms of trends. Am I getting healthier? Am I making more money now? Will I make more money in the future? Is my social life improving, am I meeting interesting new people? Uptrend good, downtrend bad. And these trends are probably due to a string of good luck or smart effort. But implicit in a positive trend is the idea that happiness is being pursued. And happiness pursued is a positive step, which in itself can bring happiness. Dynamism, for me and many others, is a form of happiness.

    But what happens if the pursued goal turns out to be a dead end? Were you really in an upward happiness trend? A failure at the end of a long search not only ruins the moment, but it ruins the memory of the past. Heck, it can even ruin the future. Not all events are equal. And the inversion can also be true, that some era of one’s life seemed wretched but in retrospect was quite wonderful. “I never realized how happy I was with her until she left!” These misapprehensions of one’s own state of happiness make the the very idea of coming up with decent metrics in this matter very difficult.

    In whatever rating system is developed there would have to be compensatory mechanism in the analysis to deal with people who are in denial of their misery or who don’t know how happy they are or who mistake happiness for something else, like egocentric competition or the confirmation of bias.

    Which leads to the role of fantasy or illusion in one’s self-perception. It seems to me, there are some people who couldn’t possibly be happy, yet seem happy. Then again, if you successfully fool yourself into thinking you’re happy, does that matter if you indeed feel happy.

    I think its just too complicated to quantify.

    The basics seem obvious, health and youth and money and freedom and community and trusting intimacy of some sort or another. But not all of these parameters of happiness should be tweaked by the state.

  8. SOME THOUGHTS ON THE ENVY ISSUE

    Back in 2000, I put together an internal minute for my employing agency on the happiness/positional externalities material that inter alia discussed criticism F, in the following terms:

    Some economists, on first encountering the positional externalities argument, react in accordance with Kuhn’s theories on the process of scientific revolutions and paradigm shifts. For example, one of the reactions I have experienced is to dismiss the argument as being ‘simply about envy’.

    However, if people are envious, such that disparities in wealth, consumption or status make some people unhappy, then on efficiency grounds shouldn’t economists recognise this fact and tailor their advice accordingly

  9. One of the best exchanges in Kath and Kim was when they were discussing where to buy a house (if only they had any money). Brett says something like: “They say you should always buy the worst house in the best street.” “Nah!” Kim replies. “I reckon you should buy the best house in the worst street so you can lord it over all your neighbours.”

  10. James,

    Thanks for the post which is great – a real reference to come back to in terms of sorting out the arguments. But it’s such a meal in one post. Added to that is the ‘herding cat’s’ feel of blog comments.

    Can I suggest that you break it down into (quite a few bits) in separate posts and we discuss them.

    One of the things that you’ve not discussed here – and (from memory) Layard doesn’t elaborate all that much on – is the way in which this is ‘back to the future’. Many of the central conclusions that emerge from Layard’s stuff were commonsense within the marginalist school of economics at the turn of the twentieth century – at least as represented by Marshall and Pigou.

    ‘Happiness’ is much preferred today because it has a kind of measurability that ‘utility’ doesn’t. Personally I much prefer the earlier stuff on utility, because it’s bolder in inventing the concept of utility and in working with it.

    Happiness as a concept bites off an awful lot to chew. Utility was more modest. Utility was the kind of stuff that economic resources brought you – usefulness – and it was acknowledged in the concept that this might not make one happy. The myth of Midas could be told about someone with lots of utility but not about someone with lots of happiness.

  11. I’d prefer it to stay as one post. I think it’s more useful and manageable that way. Inevitably if it’s split up you’ll get comments being put on the wrong thread etc etc.

    On Nicholas’s substantive observation, I seriously doubt that it’s possible to measure happiness any more accuratley/sensibly than it’s possible to measure utility. I agree with Don’s observation. I don’t think anyone is capable sensibly of evaluating their own happiness against anyone else’s, or their own present happiness against their happiness during some earlier period. Thus the surveys on which Layard’s research was largely based are highly suspect IMO. Converse’s more general research is probably relevant. People may well be giving an answer to a survey question simply because they feel they have to say something and not because they actually have any opinion/feeling in any meaningful sense.

    I also think it’s useful to examine Layard/Hamilton/Gittens from a micro (individual) and macro (government) perspective. Can/should individuals order their lives as a quest for happiness? No doubt we all do to some extent, but I agree with JS Mill in this respecvt (which is why I quoted him in both my posts you linked):

    Happiness may be a worthwhile objective, yet as the philosopher John Stuart Mill noted it cannot be the direct end of people

  12. Thanks for this. My central problem is one mentioned in Don Arthur’s post.

    Suppose you wanted to establish whether children’s height increased with age.

    One way to do this would be to interview groups of children in different classes at school, and asked them the question Don suggests “On a scale of 1 to 10, how tall are you?”. My guess is that the data would look pretty much like reported data on the relationship between happiness and income.

    That is, within the groups, you’d find that kids who were old relative to their classmates tended to be report higher numbers than those who were young relative to their classmates (for the obvious reason that, on average, the older ones would in fact be taller).

    But, for all groups, I suspect you’d find that the median response was something like 7. Even though average age is higher for higher classes, average reported height would not change (or not change much).

    So you’d reach the conclusion that height was a subjective construct depending on relative, rather than absolute, age. If you wanted, you could establish some sort of metaphorical link between being old relative to your classmates and being “looked up to”.

    But in reality, height does increase with (absolute) age and the problem is with the scaling of the question. A question of this kind can only give relative answers.

  13. The issue of scaling in happiness questions is interesting, but not for the reason John Quiggin gives.
    When people respond on a 0-10 scale, virtually no-one gives a 0 and almost no-one gives a 10. Even 1′s and 9′s are rare. There’s a lot of room at the top and the bottom. Also, the differences accross countries or within countries over time can be remarkably big. Russia went from (if memory serves) about a 1.2 to a 2 on a 0-4 scale in just 10 years in the 90s, so empirical reality shows that populations can on aggregate change their happiness. John’s point that the scales are bounded, while theoritically valid, does not yet appear a serious issue. Happiness differences accross ages are slightly more complicated since it appears that many people tend to revert to some underlying value after any shock.
    The really important issue in scaling comes up if we consider the possibility that some people could give answers that are much higher than other people’s supposed maxima. What if, say, Nicholas Gruen experiences happiness in the region 40-60 and Ken Parish only experiences happiness in the range 2-3? Then in a happiness maximising context, Nicholas is far more important than Ken: a policy maker should be willing to put 20 Kens on their lowest point in order to elevate Nicholas to his highest point. From a sheer democratic principle there is something to be said to re-scale all happiness such that they fall in the same range for everyone, i.e. to re-scale both Ken and Nicholas such that their variation is the same. A relative happiness scale may just be what a policy maker wants.

  14. It’s funny,

    I think a lot of damage was done by drawing the line at interpersonal comparisons of ‘utility’ and saying that anything that involved them was unscientific and therefore taboo in the discipline of economics. Not that I think there aren’t problems with interpersonal comparisons of utility. But I want to be able to say that my going without a can of coke to feed a third world family for a day or so is a net increase in utility however much I can’t measure the utility directly and however little I can say about comparing utility across people.

    Where this takes me is to say is this. When Pigou and Marshall were making their commonsensical point that the diminishing marginal utility of money implies that (abstracting from any second round incentive effects) redistribution from rich to poor is (on average) utility (and therefore efficiency) enhancing, the concepts they were using seem to me to be loose enough to bear what they were doing with them.

    And – as I’ve said above – utility is intended here as some kind of summary of the economic sphere of life – command over useful things. So I think it was a disaster to subject this commonsensical construction to a requirement of scientific rigour which was out of all proportion to what us little social scientists can aspire to.

    (We’ve ended up with the criterion of Pareto optimality which is of some analytic power I guess in giving us a way of drawing a line between efficiency and equity issues – but it’s a complete waste of time as a policy criterion because virtually no policy is without losers. Indeed the practitioners of a discipline built on the fastidious avoidance of comparing interpersonal value are nevertheless pretty ‘gung ho’ at calling for policies in which there are plenty of losers. This isn’t an objection to such calls, by the way, only to a methodology which would generally shear away the grounds for arguing for them them).

    But when I get to Paul Frijters’ assumption that Ken’s ‘happiness’ can be in the range 2-3 and I am in the range of 40-60 so my happiness dominates his from a policy perspective – well it seems silly doesn’t it? Seems that if we’re talking like that we’ve taken things too far. We’re doing violence to the subject matter.

    Perhaps one clue is to say that we are much more comfortable thinking of minimising suffering than we are of thinking of maximising happiness. I think that Marshall and Pigou’s insights may partake of this. They were keen to alleviate the suffering of material want. It doesn’t seem too silly to say that someone going without some thing we find is important is not as bad as someone who suffers from – say multiple sclerosis. Once basic material (and perhaps social) needs have been met, we have a lot more difficulty with our happiness understandascope.

  15. Pingback: Crooked Timber » » What’s wrong with happiness measurement ?

  16. 8. The highest goal of government policies should be to make us happier on aggregate, and therefore some index of happiness rather than one of material production should be the benchmark of national performance.

    The highest goal of government should be to enable people to pursue their own goals with minimal interference from others (including government) and within the limitations of their ability and access to resources. Government policy cannot actively promote happiness without defining what happiness is. Unless there is a universal quantifiable agreement with what happiness is, then even the best, most efficient government policy will fail because the objective is unacheivable.

    1. Happiness is a tangible component of human experience, and can be measured, reliably if not very precisely, by self-rated scores.

    Happiness is such a subjective, personal idea, that no one can possibly know what will lead to happiness for other people. The whole concept of a scale of happiness is laughable if it is being used to compare between nations and across time.

  17. All these objections sound like standard Right/Libertarian talking points:

    A. I dismiss your subjective metrics, only objective ones, like $, are acceptable.
    B. Hold on, I see where this is going! Government intervention, right? Caught you. Well I’ve got standard arguments against that!
    C. Who are you to pick happiness as a goal, eh? Let me change the subject and talk about my goals. Property rights!
    D. Did I mention freedom? That is a noble goal. Let’s talk about that.
    E. Let me manufacture some uncertainty about your statistics.
    F. I see you trying to discuss a positive emotion, well I deny it your really talking about a negative one – i.e. envy.
    G. This sounds like populism to me, so before we get into that who made you king?

  18. On Happiness:

    The Christmas (Dec 19) 2006 issue of The Economist has a marvellous set of articles on happiness. Unfortunately, it’s no longer available for free viewing on the web. The discussed the difficulties of measuring happiness, and made significant comment about the US which, (as Kath and Kim observed about Australia), happiness comes from having something others don’t have. The Economist then raises the Law of Diminishing Returns. But then, The Economist is just another journal of the latte-sipping left (according to Hobbesian free-marketeers), and only useful because their figures are so darn accurate. Even though free market radicals demonstrate that intangibles are worth three times as much as hard assets (tangibles accounting for only 25% of the market capitalization of listed companies), they discount intangibles as valid objects of economic and social policy.

    On Growth:

    Growth, as measured by a rising GDP so often held up (in isolation) as proof of economic management by Australian (and US) governments is actually a poor measure of economic health, and easily skewed by dollars pointlessly chasing each other’s tails without actually producing anything of real value. Too often “growth” (especially as mere GDP) can actually be bad for the economy, as well as for human happiness. I argue in Not all GDP growth is good that an increasing GDP is like measuring the growth of a child in kilograms (flab rather than muscle): sometimes increases are bad, falls are good.

  19. All these objections sound like standard Right/Libertarian talking points:

    What did you expect, Marxist/Maoist objections?

    A. I dismiss your subjective metrics, only objective ones, like $, are acceptable.

    Subjective measurements are fine so long as you are not trying to avoid accountability. I have no doubt that self-polling of happiness can be qualitatively analysed, what I object to is quantitative analysis of such metrics across time and space. What makes an African in a war torn nation happy is not the same as what makes a middle class Australian happy, nor an Australian from the 1950s.

    B. Hold on, I see where this is going! Government intervention, right? Caught you. Well I

  20. Frankly, I don’t care about other people’s ‘happiness‘ in the sense described here. Whilst I wish them the most of it, I don’t know what they mean by it, whether they even know what they ‘want’, and consequently I don’t attach any significance to it. I think, along with a number of commentators here, that the most ambitious goal our governments should set themselves is that of providing people with the space, and, (lest I too be dismissed for ‘liberty-freak-property-rights-ism’) the means, to make substantially what they will of themselves. If they find happiness, then I am sincerely happy for them, if not, well, that is not my problem nor ought it to be.

    Amongst other things, I think that ‘happiness‘ is inherently, as seems to be widely acknowledged if not understood, rival in nature. For better or for worse many people seem to derive their happiness only relatively (for my part I agree with Jason Soon). The error that the opium-fans here promulgate is that of attributing this to capitalism, or libertarianism, or name your evil toxic poison of the month.

    After all, when was the word

  21. I admire Patrick’s honesty and think his position will win every time in this country and in most others. It perfectly fits what the ‘growth fetish’ argument: what many want from their fellow countrymen is not that the others are happy but that they ‘succeed’, i.e. that the others make them feel part of a winning group. If you would on the other hand take the utilirian philosophy of economists and state bureaucracies seriously then you would want your fellow man and woman to achieve their goals and if those goals are to be happy, you’d want as best as possible to measure and improve that happiness and you would simply live with all the imperfections that come with it. Patrick is merely honest when he rejects that utilitarian ideal and admits what he wants from others is the feeling of being in a successful group. While I disagree with him I think he has the winning hand.

  22. There appears to be a quite fundamental disconnect between those (like Paul Frijters and James Farrell) who apparently believe that the happiness research provides a strong justification for government action designed to improve people’s happiness, and those (including me) who think this is an extraordinarily bad and potentially dangerous “nanny-statist” idea.

    I disagree fundamentally with this statement by Paul, and it has nothing to do with being uncaring about other people’s happiness:

    If you would on the other hand take the utilirian philosophy of economists and state bureaucracies seriously then you would want your fellow man and woman to achieve their goals and if those goals are to be happy, you

  23. I agree with KP. If anything he states his position more strongly than I would have!

    I just want to add, re ‘growth fetishes‘: this is a silly phrase. It simply describes human nature. The only issue you can actually identify as a ‘growth fetish‘ is that capitalism enables everyone to grow, mutually, whereas pretty much every other form of human organisation gives unbridled rein to the ‘growth fetish‘ of the lucky few, who can be presumed to report themselves very happy, at the tragic expense of all the others.

    The ‘growth fetish‘ you deplore is intrinsic in the conception, which I believe we share, that no one human is worth intrinsically more than any other, and accordingly each should have his or her chance at self-fulfillment.

    Where we diverge is that I want to give her her chance to be ‘happy‘, and most likely make others ‘happy‘/better off along the way, whereas you want to make her ‘happy‘, and, as KP points out, damned if she don’t.

  24. I’ve been blown away by the quantity and quality of comments on this post. I’d like to respond to several of them at length, and I think I’ll do that in separate new posts, rather than in one gigantic comment on this thread.

    In the meantime, I’d be very grateful if commenters could state their position with respect to my contentions 1-8 and refutations A-F. If your refutations are not covered in my catalogue, you are welcome to add new ones, but be explicit in doing so. If you are elaborating on one of them, again be explicit: Ken’s last comment was a perfect example of this.

    The request is partly in the interests of economy and focus. For people who want to argue about growth fetish, Paul’s original thread would a great place to do it.

    Thanks very much to everyone who has contributed so far.

  25. Hi all. Great discussion here. I won’t add much, except to say that it seems to me that the big opportunities to increase utility are not in wealthy country happiness but in the world’s poorest, in livestock animals, and in basic future well-being (e.g. existential risks). I will, however, make a shameless plug for Felicifia, an online utilitarianism community where all of the above gets discussed. It’s how I found this. Yinz can post your own diaires there if you’d like.

  26. Ken and Patrick seem united on their position:

    “No government has any legitimate role in spending my tax dollars or using its regulatory power to promote activities that I don

  27. It includes policies on drugs …”

    A purist libertarian would deny the legitimacy of laws prohibiting adults from using whatever drugs they want. I’m not a purist libertarian, nevertheless IMO harm minimisation and education are more effective than prohibition and criminalisation of “victimless crime” behaviour like drug-taking.

    Moreover, even if we accept that some regulatory restriction of opiate and other medically harmful drugs is desirable (as I do), a classical liberal approach (which is how I classify myself – a fairly mainstream position I would have thought, not “far fringe”) suggests that heavy-handed government regulatory intervention should generally only be utilised sparingly and in the clearest possible cases. While that may well apply to drugs (and food and health and safety standards), it manifestly doesn’t apply to the enforcement of particular prima facie harmless, generally accepted behavioural choices over other such choices.

    The state can and does force us to join the army …”

    In Australia at least, military conscription has generally been regarded as unacceptable in any but situations of the most extreme threat. Look what happened to the Coalition government in 1972. If anything, this is a point in favour of my position: coercive government action is only acceptable in situations where there is (almost) universal acceptance that the targetted behavioural change is sufficiently critically important to the society as to warrant interference with adults’ freedom of choice to engage in activities which prima facie don’t harm others.

    Finally, regulation of food and health and safety standards is qualitatively different from imposition of particular forms of behaviour that governments believe is likely to make citizens happier (like making divorce more difficult, or imposing religious instruction in schools, or restricting TV broadcasting to 4 hours per day – each of which have been advocated by assorted wowsers in purported reliance on happiness research). Generally speaking, people don’t knowingly choose to subject themselves to dangerous workplace conditions or unsafe foodstuffs. These sorts of laws are designed to protect people from hazards against which they are not in a position to protect themselves, and as such they are broadly accepted as necessary and desirable legislative impositions. Moreover, employers who provide unsafe workplaces and merchants who sell unsafe foods are not engaging in “victimless” behaviour: their conduct imposes hazards on others without their informed consent. However, we ARE all in a position to make our own reasonably informed choices about work/leisure tradeoffs, whether to be conspicuous consumers or “sea-changers”, how much TV we watch, whether we marry or divorce etc. Very few people want governments interfering in their choices in such areas, and the choices involved are “victimless” ones in that they don’t directly affect anyone but the person making the choice. Your analogies are therefore false ones.

  28. OK James – here are your propositions and quick responses IN CAPS from me.

    1. Happiness is a tangible component of human experience, and can be measured, reliably if not very precisely, by self-rated scores. SUBJECT TO LARGE ERRORS ESPECIALLY AS PEOPLE GET HAPPIER.

    2. Humans are genetically programmed to pursue happiness. This is a survival mechanism: that is, things that make us happy are conducive to good health, a longer life, more babies and so on. IF YOU LIKE. “GENETICALLY PREDISPOSED MIGHT BE A MORE CAREFUL WAY TO PUT IT.

    3. Cross country data shows pretty consistently that on average happiness increases with income, but at a certain point diminishing returns set in. In the developed world, people are not on average happier than they were in the 1960s. YEP

    4. In the short run, increasing income makes people happier, but the effect is short lasting for two reasons. First, we become quickly habituated to improved material circumstances, and their happiness returns to its original level. Second, we are hard-wired to be status conscious, so an increase in income only makes us happier until everyone else catches up. YEP

    5. Some variables have at least as large an impact on happiness but a more durable one than income: in particular, health, family relationships, employment, the level of trust in the community, and the degree of personal freedom. YEP

    6. In pursuit of the short term payoff we get from higher income, we tend to sacrifice health, family relationships and community building, and in doing so fail to maximise happiness in the long run. NOT SURE – I’M SURE SOME DO. SOME HAVE THE OPPOSITE PROBLEM – THE WHOLE ISSUE MIGHT BE RETHOUGHT AS A PLEASURE GRATIFICATION PROBLEM IN VARIOUS DIMENSIONS AND THEN I’M NOT SURE WHAT HAPPENS.

    7. Happiness is a self-evident good. YEP Other things that are good, like freedom, morality or affluence, are ultimately justified in terms of their ability to make us happier. STRONGLY DISAGREE WITH HOW STRONGLY YOU PUT IT – BUT i THINK IT IS THE CASE THAT GOOD THINGS OFTEN GO TOGETHER – IT’S CALLED POSITIVE FEEDBACK – AND SO TO THIS EXTENT THE CASE FOR EACH IS STRENGTHENED. ADAM SMITH ARGUED THAT FREEDOM WAS VALUABLE IN ITSELF AND CONTRIBUTED TO HAPPINESS. But happiness is an end in itself, and can

  29. As Nicholas gently suggests, one of the problems with this discussion is that it’s difficult if not impossible to get anywhere very useful by dealing in abstractions. My attitude towards government policies supportive of happiness would depend in considerable part on the exact nature of those policies, especially how coercive they were. Let’s take marriage, for example, an institution which research says is strongly associated with happiness. Are we talking about policies which:

    (a) impose education programs on high school children about marriage, relationships etc with a view to equipping people with stronger interpersonal skills likely to produce more durable marriages?

    (b) give substantial subsidies and tax breaks to families (as the Howard government and to an extent Hawke/Keating have done)?

    (c ) make divorce more difficult (e.g. by re-imposing fault grounds as the only bases)?

    (d) require lawyers to advise intending divorcing clients of the desirability of marriage counselling?

    (e) forbid gay marriage on the basis that it undermines the traditional institution of marriage?

    (f) impose censorship to ensure that marriage is portrayed positively on TV and in movies etc?

    (g) prohibit employers from pressuring workers to work excessively long hours and night and evening shift work, phenomena which clearly undermine families?

    etc.

    I don’t have any problems with (d) and (g), have only slight reservations about (a) (namely that I’d prefer school hours to be reserved for more academic learning, leaving this sort of life learning for home and family), have mixed feelings about (b) and to a lesser extent (e), and would be strongly opposed to (c ) or (f).

  30. Exactly right Ken,

    I woke up this morning thinking of a Police Brass Band playing in Rundle Mall when I was in Adelaide last Monday. It was a bloody good brass band. Now I can imagine economists, management consultants etc going through the police accounts and saying ‘what’s this – $X00,000 for a brass band? and giving it the shove. It’s not core business is it? Yet the brass band was a ‘merit good’. And it had lots of merit. It radiated merit. I haven’t heard a brass band play as crisply as that perhaps ever in my life. They had a singer and he was a cop – and he could really sing.

    Now this expenditure I conjecture was massively conducive to happiness. About a hundred coppers playing magnificently a crowd around enjoying it. It’s hard not to believe that it improved everyone’s wellbeing a great deal, by improving morale around the place, the sense of belonging and community.

    I thought of Paul Keating’s restructuring of the ABC Orchestras. I don’t know enough about it to know if it was a good thing or not, but it smacked of the central planner and the econocrat. The changes were based around some fairly simple ideas of rationality. The Sydney Symph did particularly well – surprise surprise. Maybe the worked out well, maybe not. But an alternative approach – a more small ‘c’ conservative one would be not to mess with institutions that seem to be doing a good job. I wouldn’t want to mess with the Adelaide coppers brass band. They were great.

  31. Pingback: Club Troppo » Weekend Missing Link

  32. have come awfully late to this via a link at the john quiggin blog. but have been thinking about these issues for a while and venture the following observations on each of the propositions and refutations:

    1. Happiness is a tangible component of human experience, and can be measured, reliably if not very precisely, by self-rated scores.

    and importantly, the self-rated scores also correspond to observed physical brain states – so it is not an entirely subjective score, states described as happy by person A correspond physically to the states described as happy by person B. For more on this see references in the economist december edition already cited earlier in the thread

    2. Humans are genetically programmed to pursue happiness. This is a survival mechanism: that is, things that make us happy are conducive to good health, a longer life, more babies and so on.

    this is one I simply don’t buy. Evolution does not care about happiness, just how many offspring survive. People genetically are pretty much just a slightly more socially adept chimp – and it is quite easy to observe that the most successful sires of chimps are not the most happy. It is a lot easier to make a link between absence of pain and genetics – but does this constitute happiness? Put simply, humans have not been around long enough for evolution to have predisposed us to more sophisticated emotional states. Conceivably hunter-gatherer humans were happy/unhappy 10,000 years ago but I doubt it: they had a hard time just attempting to live long enough to get a meal. Far more of a driver was avoidance of hunger, pain, cold etc. However, if the definition of happiness is a negative one (“absence of” any of the above) then maybe the proposition holds

    3. Cross country data shows pretty consistently that on average happiness increases with income, but at a certain point diminishing returns set in. In the developed world, people are not on average happier than they were in the 1960s.

    yes

    4. In the short run, increasing income makes people happier, but the effect is short lasting for two reasons. First, we become quickly habituated to improved material circumstances, and their happiness returns to its original level. Second, we are hard-wired to be status conscious, so an increase in income only makes us happier until everyone else catches up.

    but a drop in income makes us much more unhappy than an equivalent rise in income makes us happy. loss aversion is the driver. it is this psychological aspect that makes calls for reduced living standards implausible. This has important public policy implications (see below)

    5. Some variables have at least as large an impact on happiness but a more durable one than income: in particular, health, family relationships, employment, the level of trust in the community, and the degree of personal freedom.

    seems borne out by the research; worth looking at martin seligman’s work – a lot of academics don’t like it because it is popular, but I understand that it is borne out by serious research and data collection.

    6. In pursuit of the short term payoff we get from higher income, we tend to sacrifice health, family relationships and community building, and in doing so fail to maximise happiness in the long run.

    ditto

    7. Happiness is a self-evident good. Other things that are good, like freedom, morality or affluence, are ultimately justified in terms of their ability to make us happier. But happiness is an end in itself, and can

  33. Pingback: Club Troppo » Richard Layard’s blue pill utopia

  34. Pingback: Club Troppo » John Quiggin's objection to self-reported happiness data

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