Reasoned Evaluation or Blind Faith? How Should States Determine Policy?

I am very much taken by the thoughtful discussion offered by Will Wilkinson and then by Darrin McMahon’s reply to our various posts. Darrin continues to teach me history. When I said that Darrin was confusing happiness with pleasure, I did not mean that he did so in his book, for he surely did not. But in his Cato Unbound article, he wrote of happiness as if it were pleasure. His reply offers admirable clarification.

Now to substance. I am no more enthusiastic about a Stalinist effort to make everyone happy than McMahon or Wilkinson. Yes, the state would become oppressive, and would likely screw it up besides. And I certainly don’t want an established religion just because religious observance seems to make people happier (or for any other reason). But the problem I tried to address in my comment was not addressed by either Wilkinson or McMahon. 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. And I think this is especially true if and when research reveals that existing policies — meant to enhance welfare — are actually doing the opposite. The state should be asking itself whether it is imposing obstacles to well-being, and if it is, whether there are benefits that offset these obstacles. If not, policies should be changed and obstacles removed.

It might turn out that the very best thing the state can do to enhance well-being is to increase wealth. Ruut’s data certainly suggest that this has a bigger effect than many researchers and scholars (including me) often acknowledge. If this is true, it justifies current state policies, which essentially neglect or ignore anything but the enhancement of national wealth. But what if enhancing security (personal, not national), equality, and democracy contribute much more to well-being than enhancing wealth? What if a rich and diverse cultural life does more to enhance well-being than increased wealth? And what if there are ways to enhance security, equality, democracy, and culture if we are willing to sacrifice a little GDP? Should we do it?

I would love for there to be a national conversation about this issue. If current policy wins, I’ll sit quietly on the sidelines and shake my head. But I want state policy that is justified by something other than blind faith. I want state policy that is justified by something other than the desire to avoid confronting difficult questions. A developed science of happiness offers the possibility that reasoned evaluation can replace faith or mindlessness in shaping what the state does in the future. And finally, just as the state doesn’t shove the pursuit of wealth down our individual throats, it needn’t shove the pursuit of happiness — rightly understood — down our throats. It can just put policies in place that make some pursuits that are now difficult easier, and others that are now easy more difficult. “Soft paternalism,” as The Economist called it (April 6, 2006, subscription required), is the kind of thing I have in mind.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • 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

  • 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.

  • 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.”

  • 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.