The state assumes that it can somehow centrally plan society to achieve particular goals, but this is unrealistic and potentially dangerous - says think-tank
The British government is spending £2m on trying to work out what makes us happy. After doing that, the Office for National Statistics will collect data on our wellbeing on a long-term basis. It is doing this so that it can, in Prime Minister David Cameron's words, promote the general wellbeing of the country instead of obsessively promoting economic growth. This policy is misguided for several reasons. Firstly, it is clear that governments do not try to maximise economic growth. The size of the state in economic life is well above the level that maximises economic growth in the UK and most other Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development countries.
Indeed, if the share of government spending in national income had been maintained at the level that pertained in 1960 for the last 50 years - then national income today would be twice as high as it currently is. Growth retarding regulation abounds – planning restrictions, employment law and so on. People will have different views on whether bigger government is a good idea, but it is very clear that government policy in almost every area is not geared towards maximising economic growth. So, Cameron's policy is based on a false premise.
It is also deeply troubling that a British government should believe that the best way to promote national well-being is to try to collect aggregate statistics on our well-being. What makes us happier is deeply personal and involves trade-offs. One person in a particular family situation might be happier in a job that provided more time with the family. A different person might want to work all hours god sends in order to save up for the time when he or she will have a family. People have different views about the value of job security versus the chance of getting a new job after having been fired. One simply cannot aggregate this data into some sort of national-utility function and then direct government policy towards maximising that utility function.
If you look at the wellbeing data - it surprisingly bears little relationship with variables such as inequality, health, crime and other variables to which we would expect it to be related. The government would do well to create a framework in which we had the maximum freedom to pursue wellbeing. As it happens, the clearest relationships found in the data are between religion and wellbeing and strong families and wellbeing. Having a job is also important. Few would argue that the state should coerce people into a religion, but we might consider the incentive structures in the welfare state that encourage worklessness and discourage family formation.
But, these are policies that we can see are reasonable from first principles. The welfare state should be designed so that it distorts behaviours as little as possible. We do not need the over-stretched ONS in Newport to spend decades collecting data about how happy we all are to reach that conclusion. In debating this topic with leading happiness academics, I have been told that it is self-evident that we should direct society towards the single goal of maximising aggregate happiness. This is a dangerous philosophy. It suggests that policy should be detached from principle. It assumes that the government can somehow centrally plan society to achieve particular goals. It ignores the fact that people may, on aggregate, be happy if we pursue a policy of especially cruel punishments for criminals or keeping out migrants.
This attitude also ignores the struggles that we have to endure as human beings to make the world a better place. If we could pop a happiness pill and if maximising happiness were the sole end of government policy we may well forsake the daily toil that brings so much satisfaction in the long term. It is the struggle to overcome adversity which often brings a deep satisfaction that cannot easily be measured. Interestingly, there are many academic studies that suggest that our wellbeing is strongly related to a low level of intervention by governments. This just adds to the many other reasons why deliberate attempts to promote happiness by conscious government intervention might have precisely the reverse of the intended effects.Professor Philip Booth is editorial director at the Institute of Economic Affairs think-tank, in the United Kingdom, and author of …and the pursuit of happiness
What a load of hogwash. The author is very welcome to create his own adversities - crime, inequality, health problems - so that he can overcome them, but I'd humbly ask him to stay well away from public policy thank you very much. If governments do not actively seek to identify our common goals, by research and debate, then it is certain that we will not attain those goals. In the meantime, we will pursue the simplistic goal of growth for growth's sake and I don't know why the author thinks this is better. I remain unimpressed and uninspired by how this article defeated a straw-man argument.
Henrik Hermansson - Department of Political Science, Trinity College Dublin
Henrik - maybe you would like to re-read the article and comment more intelligently. Where did I say that we should pursue growth? And it is certainly true that we have not pursued growth. Our disagreement is entirely different - it is about whether a government can collect aggregate data regarding our happiness and direct society towards that common goal or whether the government should allow individuals, families and communities to pursue their goals and use the appropriate legal mechanisms to arbitrate where those goals are in conflict.
Philip - iea