Policy Trade-offs, Justice, and Happiness

I have to say that as a humanist, it is great fun to watch the high level exchange between Will and Barry from the sidelines. But their discussion raises a number of questions in my mind. Barry spoke of the importance of security as a desirable human end, and I have to say that on a personal level security is very appealing to me. But at the macroeconomic level, creating greater security — in the form of job guarantees, long-term unemployment insurance, subsidized medical care, and so forth — obviously can have the downside of stifling innovation, curbing growth, and limiting an economy’s ability to respond flexibly to changing conditions. I think of France as an example of a society that has achieved a laudable degree of security for its citizens, but at the cost of a certain degree of sclerosis — most notably high structural unemployment on the order of 9-10%.

Presumably Barry would argue that we can strive for a better balance between innovation and security than France, and no doubt many (including many French) would agree. But my question is this: Given that we know that unemployment is particularly hard on happiness, how would a policy maker, using the new happiness research, weigh between the happiness promoted by a high-growth economy with some insecurity and one that generates security at the cost of some growth? What I’m getting at is that it strikes me that weighing the pluses and minuses between these two general policy approaches would be very difficult, if not impossible, drawing solely on happiness data. Yes, one can compare different societies, but so many variables enter into the calculations here that identifying direct correlations is perilous. And so one is left in the end to make decisions based on other criteria, moral criteria, to adjudicate competing claims. That is perfectly fine, of course — in France nobody erected the welfare state by claiming that it would boost happiness. The talk rather was (and is) about justice: A moral society has an obligation to care for its needy and vulnerable, basic security is a social right, and other claims of this order.

That brings me to a related point, which Barry alluded to in passing: equality. Every study I’ve seen suggests that economic inequality doesn’t seem to have much of a bearing on happiness (though I stand to be corrected). That is perhaps surprising, and it is probably frustrating to some who would like to claim support in happiness research for policies favoring redistribution. I grant that one can make compelling arguments for the benefits of equality, though apparently not on happiness grounds. But that doesn’t seem to stop many who favor the new happiness research from also favoring greater equality, Barry apparently among them. Again, that is perfectly fine. But it does suggest to me that in some cases the new happiness research is being used somewhat selectively, or even as a way to give scientific credence to arguments that at bottom are really moral and political. In France in the next several weeks, the country will be having a presidential debate about what degree of security and equality is most desirable to the citizens of that country. They won’t be talking much about happiness. But perhaps that is more honest.

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.