Arnold Kling  

Layard and Happiness

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Learning from Lomborg... Robin, Radon, and Regulation...

Richard Layard, the king of "happiness research" is back, and I am not happy. He writes,


Divorce and broken homes are ever more common. Research shows that the children of broken homes are more prone to depression in adulthood. To protect children, the state should act to try to make family life more manageable, through better school hours, flexible hours at work, means-tested childcare, and maternity and paternity leave. Parenting classes should also be compulsory in the school curriculum and an automatic part of antenatal care.

As far as I know, there is no evidence whatsoever that any of the solutions proposed--flexible work hours, compulsory parenting classes, etc.--have been shown to have an effect on the problem--divorce and broken homes. But I do not think this really matters to Layard. His happiness depends on imposing his policies on everyone else.

In his essay (you should read the whole thing), Layard claims that his core value is Benthamite utilitarianism. To me, his core value looks like elitist paternalism.

It seems to me that if Layard really has made important discoveries in his happiness research, then what he should write is a self-help book, not a policy polemic. Give people the information about how to be happy, and let them adopt the advice for themselves.

UPDATE: more from Robert McHenry. My views are laid out in my book in the chapters "The Omniscient Voyeur" and "Can Money Buy Happiness?"

Another UPDATE: See Tyler Cowen's current thinking.

For Discussion. Why would Layard object to a policy of simply giving people better information about the causes of happiness?


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TRACKBACKS (3 to date)
TrackBack URL: http://econlog.econlib.org/mt/mt-tb.cgi/209
The author at tipperography in a related article titled Department of HappinessScariness writes:
    Arnold Kling sent me off to read this bit of idiocy by Richard Layard, Happiness Man. [Tracked on March 2, 2005 5:47 PM]
COMMENTS (11 to date)
Danno writes:

I would posit that the reason is that individual happiness doesn't come from any set of particular circumstances, but a determination to be happy within your particular environment.

That is not to say though that the environment doesn't have an affect on whether an individual is succesful at becoming happy.

It is my opinion that neither self-determination nor environmental situation alone can be the ultimate cause of personal success, failure, happiness, or sadness and various other things that tend to be lumped either in one category or the other (extrinsic or intrinsic).

Not to say that those particular suggestions would make it easier for self-motivated people to obtain happiness, but rather merely outlining a set of systems to the individual isn't going to really enable them much at all.

Now, I have something For Discussion as well:

What solutions have evidence that they increase or make it easier to increase happiness?

Bob Knaus writes:

Yes, definitely read the whole thing. The guy is nuts!

At first you assume he is serious, then you conclude you are reading a satire, then you realize that no he is serious after all and God save the British if this is how their governing class thinks.

He claims to base his appeal on Enlightenment ideals. HA! The Enlightenment ideal appropriate to this circumstance is the "pursuit of happiness" which has limited the government's responsibility for my own happiness since 1776. Just stand aside and let me pursue my own, please.

The only reason I can think why Richard might not favor simply giving people more information about how to achieve happiness would be that the government's role (and range of policy prescriptions) would be very limited indeed. A government whose mandate was to increase popular happiness would find itself with rather little to do, because there is so little that can be done.

So, a limited government with hardly any tasks to perform would not need to collect much in the way of taxes. Cutting taxes decreases total happiness, in Richard's analysis. You see the Catch-22?

Capt. Bob Knaus
S/V PELLUCID

Lawrance George Lux writes:

Because the objective measure of Happiness is not very objective. I have found Stress levels fairly dictate levels of happiness at inverse ratio. At bottom line: People will be happier if and only if People stop bothering People; I think it could be the same for Government bothering People. lgl

David Masten writes:

Hmmmm....seek rents as Happiness Czar or seek profits via self-help book sales.

BT writes:

As a parent of three small children, I champion the ideas expressed. A society must emphasize self-perpetuation and making parenting easier is a necessary and laudable goal. Societies which have successfully lasted thousands of years (Indians, Chinese, Egyptians) may not have the best current economic systems but do have social systems in place that emphasize the family and child rearing. Perhaps this is the reason why these societies have lasted for so long despite the poverty and colonization. The US experiences the highest rate of violence among the industrialized world; perhaps this is an indication that we should place more emphasis on parenting issues and less on economic treatises. I wonder what it costs to incarcerate a person versus forcing at risk kids into effective after school programs.

-BT

Lancelot Finn writes:

From the economic point of view, you can justify a government intervention, even explicit coercion, when there are externalities. I doubt that the policies Layard suggests would work, but they do seem to meet this criterion of dealing with externalities.

Thus, if I take parenthood classes in high school, the main beneficiary is not supposed to be me, but my children. Let's suppose the classes work: I become a better parent. I may still be worse off, because other activities would have increased my happiness more than parenthood classes. But if my kid's net happiness gain were greater than my happiness loss, the policy would be justified from a utilitarian point of view.

Divorce is another obvious case of an externality. If I cheat on and then divorce my wife, it may reduce my happiness. But it reduces my wife's happiness more obviously and brutally. The marriage market has the character of a sort of vast prisoner's dilemma game within each gender, against the other gender. Thus, if all the men in America decided, simultaneously, to play more computer games and devote 50% less time to housework and personal hygiene, the women would just have to lower their standards. Men would be get to slack off, and get the same quality of wives; women would have to do more housework and tolerate less attractive husbands. However, in this society, each man would have an incentive to undercut the bargain by grooming himself, staying away from the computer, and thus becoming a better husband and attractive to lots of women.

If a government intervention could render a lot of people into more faithful and considerate spouses, the obvious beneficiaries would not be the faithful and considerate spouses themselves, but the people who married them-- again, an externality.

Externalities are one thing; another justification for government intervention is coordination problems. Perhaps spontaneous order would emerge on America's highways if the government declared that everyone was free to drive on the left-hand side of the road; but it's better to have a law. Likewise, it benefits society to have some agent-- in the past, churches and chivalric culture have played this role-- that coordinate people's expectations about love, marriage and family, and thus make it easier for people to meet others with similar expectations.

The case for communitarian-type interventions in the free market is a lot stronger than libertarians are willing to admit. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately from a libertarian point of view, the government, and our present government in particular, is completely inadequate to implementing such interventions. Civil society might have a better chance. What Layard should be writing is neither a self-help book nor a policy polemic. He should be writing an exhortation to civil society actors, such as clubs and churches and universities.

another bob writes:

A bully's happiness is increased when other people are coerced to conform to the bully's idea of happiness.

Do we want to increase the clout of bully's whether physical or intellectual?

B. Scot writes:

from above post:
(A bully's happiness is increased when other people are coerced to conform to the bully's idea of happiness)... LIKE RELIGION PUSHERS

dsquared writes:

Why would Layard object to a policy of simply giving people better information about the causes of happiness?

Most likely, because his view is that people would like to (for example) work fewer hours, but can't do anything about it because their preferred labour/leisure tradeoff is not a bundle which employers choose to make available. "Self-help" implies that people are not constrained by their initial endowment of wealth to choices which intersect their utility curve.

Here's a utilitarian hypothetical for Arnold; wouldn't it be best of all if we gave everyone the information about happiness, then shared out all the productive assets of the economy equally and then left them to it?

Duane Gran writes:

Why would Layard object to a policy of simply giving people better information about the causes of happiness?

Probably because those who are most at-risk are the ones who are least capable to apply the information to their lives. This reminds me of the FDA nutrition guidelines printed on food labels. I use this information, but for some reason unhealthy people generally don't take the information to heart. The "print it an they will read it" notion simply isn't true.

It may smell of paternalism to structure the tax code and nudge society around, but it is probably a lot more effective. Sure, it is an affront to my intelligence, but I am just one of many and I have to accept that everyone isn't like me.

joe o writes:

Using happiness levels as a way of evaluating societies is a good idea. As Sen points out, one of main things that causes long term unhapiness is unemployment. If a regulatory environment is too strict with high levels of unemployment, the total happiness may be lower than in a less regulated society.

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