In his most recent post, Barry writes:
As an empirical fact, states DO make policy. Should policy be determined by the “new science” of happiness? Of course not. Should it be informed by the “new science” of happiness? Absolutely.
I agree completely that policy ought to be informed by happiness research. But I think it is too abstract to speak of “states” as the relevant policymakers. Generally, policymakers are either politicians voted into office by citizens, or bureaucrats appointed by politicians. And policy is made at many different levels, from local school boards to the U.S. Congress. At what level should happiness research inform policymaking? Again, I agree with Frey and Stutzer [pdf], who write:
The results gained from happiness research should be taken as inputs into the political process. These inputs have to prove themselves in political competition and in the discourse among citizens, and between citizens and politicians.
I think their point follows from the kinds of considerations I touched on briefly in my reply to Darrin’s lead essay. An overall system of institutions that does in fact tend to produce happiness will generally involve a lot of procedural rigamarole, such as mechanisms of democratic representation, separation of powers, and so forth, that more or less guarantee that considerations of happiness will not be the only or even the most emphasized inputs to the political process. Questions that turn on considerations of justice may loom much larger than considerations of happiness, and appropriately so. Yesterday, for example, the Supreme Court handed down a decision affirming the legality of Congress’s ban on intact dilation and extraction procedures. Whatever considerations were dominant in legislative and judicial deliberation over this intensely controversial issue, happiness wasn’t one of them, and I think most of us find that natural and acceptable.
Furthermore, when it comes to nuts-and-bolts policymaking in democratic societies, it is unavoidable that the often myopic economic and political interests of industries, unions, and other interest groups will play a large role. We can only hope that our institutions are designed in ways that minimize competition over the reins of power and reduce incentives to fight over the fiscal commons, but instead channel economic resources and human energies into more productive and peaceful paths.
I agree with Barry that we need to have a conversation about how our social, political, and economic institutions relate to our well-being. Thankfully, we are having it, and we always have been having it. It is probably impossible to avoid having it in a democracy with free institutions. Happiness research just introduces a new wrinkle into the perennial conversation. I intended my recent paper on the policy implications of happiness research as precisely the kind of input to public deliberation Frey and Stutzer suggest. My conclusion was that the science of happiness in its present incarnation is of limited use, due largely to the difficulties of defining and measuring happiness, but that the best results happiness research so far has produced — and Ruut’s work is exemplary — seem to pose little challenge to liberal societies with high-growth economies and roiling commercial cultures, contrary to what a number of prominent happiness researchers seem to be saying.
Barry, when you say “I would love for there to be a national conversation about this issue,” that is, the issue of whether we would be willing to “sacrifice a little GDP” in order to “enhance security, equality, democracy, and culture,” do you mean something more grandiose than what we are doing right now?