Friday, December 9, 2011

Social Planning and Happiness Economics

In the past century, we entered the age of social measurement, in which every aspect of our lives can, in theory, be measured. The quest for measures is part of a move toward the planned society, in which experts provide policy makers with the empirical information needed to attain our collective goals. But what are those collective goals? The most common answer in developmental economics is prosperity, measured by the Gross National Product (GNP), on the assumption that high levels of production and consumption are universally desired and that the right policies are those that maximize GNP.  GNP may not always be a good measure of general prosperity, some argue, because it is theoretically possible for one individual or one family to enjoy all the economic benefits, while the rest of the population lives in miserable poverty.  Therefore, social scientists often employ a measure such as the gini coeffcient, an indicator of how evenly distributed the wealth or income of a nation is.
These purely economic measures have met with criticism by those who say that life in a relatively rich country may sometimes be worse than life in a relatively poor country. These critics often maintain that we need more detailed measures of prosperity, such as the infant mortality rate or mental and physical health statistics. The reason we want all of these indicators is that they will enable the experts and the policy makers to design the society that maximizes the well-being of its population, a view consistent with the utilitarian philosophy of Jeremy Bentham, who, incidentally, coined the word "maximize." Bentham argued that the collective goal should be "the greatest good of the greatest number."
The idea of social planning for maximum utilitarian benefit leads, logically, to the view that what policy makers really need to do is to design the society in which everyone has the highest level of general well-being, since even prosperity or health are desirable because they contribute to well-being. Thus, the New Economics Foundation aims at creating National Accounts of Well-Being and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has published a report on well-being across nations, based on 11 indicators, including income, jobs, housing, health, work-life balance, and the environment. This general approach is known as "happiness economics."
One legitimate criticism of policies aimed at producing happiness and well-being is that, given the complexity and unpredictability of human life, they may not work as intended. Arthur Brooks, for example, has argued in his book Gross National Happiness that secularism, excessive reliance on the state to solve problems, and addiction to security may actually produce unhappiness.  But I think there may be a more fundamental criticism of better living through policy, even when we get all the measurements right and the policies actually do make people more secure, more contented, and healthier. The whole project of experts seeking to employ empirical evidence to make the right technological judgments to produce happy people may be inconsistent with human autonomy and dignity.   
Aldous Huxley's Brave New World told the story of a completely planned society, a utilitarian utopia. Chapter 17 contains a conversation between John the Savage, who has grown up on the New Mexico Savage Reservation outside the World State, and Mustapha Mond, the Resident World Controller of Western Europe:
"But I don't want comfort [said the Savage]. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin."

"In fact," said Mustapha Mond, "you're claiming the right to be unhappy."

"All right then," said the Savage defiantly, "I'm claiming the right to be unhappy."

"Not to mention the right to grow old and ugly and impotent; the right to have syphilis and cancer; the right to have too little to eat; the right to be lousy; the right to live in constant apprehension of what may happen to-morrow; the right to catch typhoid; the right to be tortured by unspeakable pains of every kind." There was a long silence.

"I claim them all," said the Savage at last.

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