Justice and Happiness and Growth, not Justice or Happiness or Growth

I think Darrin has it exactly right that too much security seems to produce a sclerotic economy, at least in these times, and several Scandinavian countries, seeing the handwriting on the wall, have traded a bit of security for economic flexibility in recent years. Some day a really smart economist may figure out a way to avoid this tradeoff, but for now, we’re stuck with it. My argument is that when we think about policy, we should be thinking about economic growth, AND economic justice, AND subjective well-being (a clunky term that I much prefer to “happiness”). I don’t think we can be formulaic about it, since specific world economic circumstances will make for different sorts of trade-offs. My own values would give justice priority over subjective well-being, when those kinds of tradeoffs have to be made. But I also think that acknowledging that trade-offs have to be made is a big step from where we are now. Justice and subjective well-being are essentially ignored, and all policies are directed at providing economic stimulus.

As for the empirical story on the relation between economic inequality and subjective well being, Darrin may be right (he probably knows the literature better than I do), but I thought Ed Diener had found that economic inequality reduced well-being.

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • The Pursuit of Happiness in Perspective by Darrin M. McMahon

    In this month’s lead essay, Darrin McMahon, Ben Weider Associate Professor of History at Florida State University and author of Happiness: A History, puts the contemporary obsession with happiness in historical and philosophical perspective. Tracing our current notion of happiness back to “a dramatic revolution in human expectations” in the seventeenth century, McMahon argues that we have come to see happiness as not only something that is possible in this life, but which ought to be the aim of life. Noting that the recent spate of worried meditations on happiness is a luxury of the already wealthy and secure, McMahon argues against the single-minded focus on happiness as both an individual and social goal. Casting a critical eye on the aspirations of the new “happiness research,” McMahon argues that there may be natural limits to happiness, agrees with John Stuart Mill that “The only chance is to treat, not happiness, but some end external to it, as the purpose of life,” and asks us to heed Aldous Huxley’s warning of a society in which everyone is happy “and yet the world is a nightmare.”

Response Essays

  • Why Societies Should Pursue Happiness by Barry Schwartz

    Swarthmore College psychologist Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, argues that Darrin McMahon’s cautionary tale is based on the confusion of happiness with pleasure. For Schwartz happiness “rightly understood” is “authentic happiness” centered on the development of virtue and excellence. We should not be afraid to apply such a conception of happiness to policy, for “figuring out what does and does not bring happiness, or utility, might vastly improve the ability of national policies to increase welfare.” Schwartz suggests we will find that not only does happiness not rise in lockstep with wealth, but that happiness in fact begins to decrease at a certain level of affluence. Free-market capitalism, Schwartz argues, tends to turns us into “infantilized pleasure-seekers” not oriented toward authentic happiness. “No one is going to get rich in a society full of seekers of human excellence,” Schwartz says.

  • The Data Tell a Different Story by Ruut Veenhoven

    Ruut Veenhoven, editor of the Journal of Happiness Studies and director of the World Database of Happiness, argues that happiness levels are not stagnant, as McMahon maintained in his lead essay. Citing the most recent data, Veenhoven observes that levels of average happiness have increased over the past 30 years in the United States and the European Union, while the increase in the expected number of “Happy Life Years” is even more dramatic. “This increase in overall quality of life is unprecedented in human history,” Veenhoven writes. McMahon’s concerns about an overemphasis on happiness are misguided, Veenhoven argues. Far from making us complacent, happiness improves health, creativity, and citizenship. Though Denmark is the happiest country on record, Veenhoven notes that “this does not seem to have damaged the Danes.”

  • The Quest for a Scientific Politics of Happiness by Will Wilkinson

    In his reply to McMahon, Cato Unbound managing editor Will Wilkinson lays out three “enormous problems” for the “quest for a scientific politics of happiness.” First, happiness is just one value among many. Second, no one knows for sure what happiness is. Third, Wilkinson sets up a dilemma. On the one hand, if a scientific politics of happiness is understood as the active management of social welfare by political elites, then it pseudoscience. On the other hand, if it is understood as a science of social coordination, then the specific aim of happiness becomes secondary to the requirements of effective coordination. This “institutionalist” conception of a scientific politics of happiness can overcome the problems of pluralism and definition, Wilkinson argues, but at the price of losing focus on the preeminent value of happiness.

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