Friday, May 31, 2019

Should Government Produce Happiness?

Martin Wolf writes economics commentary for the Financial Times. Apparently, this makes him an authority on happiness. It also seems to make him believe that he is an expert in philosophy.

Put it all together and you read Wolf on the proper role for government. It is, to produce happiness. Or well being. After all, he explains, Thomas Jefferson said so, and who are we to dispute Thomas Jefferson.

In March 1809, Thomas Jefferson wrote, on his departure from the US presidency, that “the care of human life and happiness, and not their destruction, is the first and only legitimate object of good government”. It is hard to disagree. The question is how this idea might be turned into policy. How might one measure “happiness”? What promotes it?

As an amusing sidelight, a young Harvard graduate, by name of Theodore Roosevelt, declared, in his book, The Naval War of 1812, that the second term of the Jefferson administration was an unmitigated calamity. This suggests that TJ was not a rousing success as president; apparently, his administration did not produce gales of happiness.

For his column Wolf begins with and challenges the word of Richard Layard a London School of Economics professor, who wrote a book called The Origins of Happiness.

The answer, this book suggests, is self-reported “life satisfaction”, which rests on people’s own preferences and judgments. But does this objective give robust findings on the relevant inputs? The argument is that it definitely does.

Income explains a small part of variations in happiness, partly because relative income matters so much. Human relationships, especially partnerships, matter. Unemployment is very harmful. But mental health is the most important determinant of life satisfaction. The best predictor of happiness in adult life is emotional wellbeing as a child. That, in turn, is determined by the parents, especially their mental wellbeing (above all, of mothers). Conflict between parents is damaging. Given such conflict, separation may not add to the harm. Schooling is also important.

Given what we already know, argues the book, policy appraisal based on wellbeing “will eventually become totally accepted as the standard way to evaluate social policies . . . And hopefully experimentation will become the standard prelude to policy change.”

There is truth and nonsense in this compendium. True enough, children who grow up in intact families tend to do better than do those who do not. True enough, the mother is the most important person in that equation.

And yet, if mental health is the most important determinant of happiness, why bother with economic policy at all? Why not just give everyone therapy? To be fair, very few people would ever claim that therapy produces happiness. Heck, it has enough trouble curing mental illness.

And besides, the notion that we should rely on self-reported happiness fails almost any test you can devise. Keep in mind, young people who graduate from college and move into their parents’ basements to play video games report a high degree of happiness. Besides, if we found a pill that could produce happy feelings, would we really want to say that everyone had become happy.

Wolf believes that the proper course of governmental action should begin with eliminating harms. But then, he adds that we must spend more money treating mental illness… as though today’s treatments have ever been shown to be really effective, anyway. And then, he suggests that we spend more money on education. This means that the proper role of government is to coddle and to mother people:

I have doubts. It will be extremely hard to relate many policy choices to the wellbeing of the population in any precise way, but we can identify relatively clearly the determinants of “ill-being”. We can also identify policies that are likely to alleviate ill-being relatively effectively. We should eliminate harms.

The UK’s all-party parliamentary group on wellbeing economics recently drafted a report on how this underlying concept could be applied to the forthcoming government spending review. It argued for a package of additional spending amounting to £8bn (0.4 per cent of GDP). The top priority would be increased resources for the treatment of mental illness. Furthermore, it argues, the budget for physical and mental healthcare should be separated, to protect the latter from encroachment by the former. The second priority would be investing in the wellbeing of children in schools. The third priority would be skilled employment. This requires a much higher resource priority for non-university-based further education, which is being squeezed by the explosion in the number of university students. That is also precisely what the Augar Review of post-18 education and funding recommends. A fourth priority is funding social care for children, the disabled and the old, as well as centres for children, youth and old people. The last priority is a shift in prison policy towards promoting rehabilitation, skill acquisition and mental health....

This suggested new approach to wellbeing can thus be viewed in two different ways. The broader path is to reconsider all government policy against its contribution to social wellbeing, as New Zealand is trying to do. The narrower is to shift resources, at the margin, towards areas of spending most likely to reduce the causes of great harm, such as mental ill health and loneliness. One does not have to buy all of the broader package to accept this shift in priorities toward alleviating the biggest harms. All parties should agree on this as the minimum goal for policy in a civilised and prosperous society.

And precisely how is spending government resources on mothering people going to produce prosperity? That, after all, is the rub.

After all, Aristotle first philosophized the notion of happiness, called eudemonia, well before utilitarian philosophers. To his mind, happiness was the feeling accompanying accomplishment and achievement. When people are allowed to compete and to succeed in the marketplace, in the arena or even on the battlefield, they might win and they might lose. If they succeed, they will gain a sense of accomplishment, but this is certainly not what is meant by the notion that we will all be happy if only the government takes care of us in order to produce a therapy-induced stupor that we mistake for well-being.


Ares Olympus said...

We might say Nazi Germany tried to produce happiness by promoting national pride, and racial pride. They created myths of superiority and suddenly if you had blond hair and blue eyes, you instantly gained status and could walk down the street with other special people and scheme collective revenge against the people who are wrongfully trying to hold you back. This suggest populist leaders at least are good at identifying scapegoats and unifying people against common enemies. You can project all your shortcomings on your external enemies and righteously hate them for it. Certainly it must feels like happiness when you believe your specialness (personal and collective) will soon be honored, and you'll work very hard to make it happen.

David Foster said...

Of course, there's the old question: 'Is it better to be a pig satisfied, or Socrates dissatisfied?'

I'm reading a very interesting book about liberal education and the British working classes....apparently quite a movement, both self-education and classroom-based, circa 1890--1950....and one guy, asked if his educational efforts (literature, history, political theory, etc) had made him happier, he said: Probably not, but the happiness is of a different kind.

Anonymous said...

Happiness comes from being honorable and doing good in the eyes of God.

Doing good and being honorable will create a developed soul, and that will attract other good and honorable people to yourself; it will also repel people who have no honor and who do evil.

These alliances of like-minded people who do good are indispensable to the creation and preservation of high Civilization. These links between good people are the framework of all of our commonly held achievements and projects, and their records become the inspiration to others to join in and participate and be counted. There is a feeling of glory in being part of something like building the Hoover Dam or defeating Communism.

These endeavors create bonds among the men and women who engage in them, and this becomes the basis of real friendship (e.g. Montaigne and Boetie). Friendship is a primary source of happiness and one of the great consolations in life--in any circumstances.

Marrying well is also a primary source of happiness. Choose wisely.

Health is part luck, but make the effort to be healthy. Being physically unhealthy is no blessing and makes life very hard.

I will take the life of an honorable man, in good health, who does good, with devoted friendships and a kind and loyal wife to that of a nihilist with every economic opportunity at their disposal.

And that is exactly 180 degrees from what you will learn at almost every university in the world. There is more wisdom in Aristotle than in the entire faculty at Harvard University.

David Foster said...

C S Lewis:

"It is easy to think the State has a lot of different objects—military, political, economic, and what not. But in a way things are much simpler than that. The State exists simply to promote and to protect the ordinary happiness of human beings in this life.

A husband and wife chatting over a fire, a couple of friends having a game of darts in a pub, a man reading a book in his own room or digging in his own garden—that is what the State is there for. And unless they are helping to increase and prolong such moments, all the laws, parliaments, armies, courts, police, economics, etc., are simply a waste of time."

This sounds superficially very much like what Martin Wolf said, but I don't think it really is.

David Foster said...

" populist leaders at least are good at identifying scapegoats and unifying people against common enemies"

Identifying scapegoats & unifying people against Enemies is a major feature of today's Progs. Witch-trials and ritual denunciations are a huge thing.

UbuMaccabee said...

David Foster, great quote from C.S. Lewis. Could not agree more. The simple pleasures of free citizens is the goal of good government. I'm going to hear a theatrical version of "Screwtape" next Saturday.

Sam L. said...

"The State exists simply to promote and to protect the ordinary happiness of human beings in this life." Not for communists, socialists, progressives, and other totalitarians. It's to make the proles do as they are told.

Anonymous said...

Hitler was a Catholic that went to art school, he was a sensitive man. Catholic even spoke at his Nazi Rally Olympics games.

Eric Wilner said...

... If the Government's purpose it to produce happiness...
... We should look at every part of it, and ask: Does this spark joy?
If it doesn't, throw it out.
I'm cool with that.