Arnold Kling  

Happy Totalitarians

Progress and Displacement... The College Choice...

New Economist points to a lot of articles on the political economy of happiness, including Mark Easton's article in The New Statesman. Easton writes,

North of the border, the Scottish Executive supports an organisation called the Centre for Confidence and Well-being which aims to make Scotland 15 per cent more optimistic within ten years. "Optimism is a major component of happiness and I think it's the part that we can most immediately see is missing from Scottish life," says the centre founder, Carol Craig.

Maybe the students can march around singing "Always look on the Bright Side of Life" from Monty Python's "The Life of Brian."

Easton continues,

It is a vision shared by Richard Layard, who has been pressing the government to employ another 10,000 fully trained psychotherapists. His book Happiness: lessons from a new science is the bible of Britain's new utilitarians - a sweeping manifesto for well-being, arguing for policies that would lower consumer spending, reduce mobility of labour and restrict growth - heretical talk, one imagines, inside the Treasury.

Just what we needed. Another scientific excuse for totalitarianism.

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COMMENTS (8 to date)
John writes:

Here in the States, conservatives are happier than liberals. Maybe Scotsmen should be forced to join the Tory party.

It's for their own good!

I was busily searching for another good article on this topic that I linked to a while go, Don't Worry, Be Happy -- Or Else, but they I realize it's yours. Duh!

liberty writes:

That kind of thing is why I don't like happiness research. There are studies that show that some totalitarian societies had happier people than many free societies. Why? Because people in totalitarian societies don't know what they are mising, feel plenty secure sometimes - or lie other times, and can't feel as if they have not achieved enough as you do when you depend on yourself, so they don't complain as much.

Does that mean they are actually "happier"? And is that kind of "happy" something we actually want to achieve. I'd say No!

Barkley Rosser writes:

Good heavens, liberty, where did you see any such studies? Frankly, I agree that there are all kinds of philosophical and methodological problems that can be raised about happiness research. But this attempt to criticize it on ideological grounds is one of the sillier benders that I have seen Arnold go off on.

Now, it is true that if you look at the most widely cited happiness numbers, all the Nordic countries come out ahead of, or at least equal to, the US. However, I do hope that you are not one of those that considers them to be "totalitarian" because of their high tax rates.

In general, one did not see high happiness numbers in the old Soviet bloc. We did see those numbers drop after the fall of communism, but then most of these countries also experienced massive declines in their economies for several years. It is well known that becoming unemployed is one of the least happy experiences people can have, although having a spouse die or getting thrown in jail come in as worse. As their economies have turned around and improved, their happiness numbers have also gone back up again, at least somewhat.

What has gone on in those countries with regard to this matter is very complicated and a matter of quite intensive current study. I will note that much of the data in these studies is of the best kind that one could look for, panels that follow specific individual people over time, not these random samples of different people at different points of time in different places, which are clearly subject to all these problems of interpersonal comparisons and so forth.

liberty writes:

There are many such studies. It is well known that insular regimes have citizens that often can't compare their own happiness to that which they might have in another - more free - society. The Soviet Union - and China and other socialist regimes - fit in this category.

One book called "Politics, Work and Daily life in the USSR; a survey of former Soviet citizens" covers many surveys during the soviet reign in the USSR and I will give you a quote:

"Satisfaction with life in the USSR

The first type of evidence deals with the respondants' reported satisfaction with the material aspects of their lives in the USSR. When asked how satisfied they had been with various aspects of life ... over two thirds of the respondants said that they were somewhat satisfied or very satisfied with their standard of living, their job, their housing, and public medical care."

This survey was taken with emigrants - people who had left the USSR, were not afraid of retribution and had recently learned about another kind of system. Even so, many people responded that they had been okay with their material life and more of those who were favored public control over industry and healthcare, education and to a lesser extent agriculture.

59% of people said they were either very satisfied (11.1%) or somewhat satisfied (48.1%) with their standard of living. (remember, SOL was only 30% of what it is in the USA - what percent of Americans are satisfied?)

The survey doesn't ask about "happiness" but usually it correlates with things like satisfaction with standard of living and political agreement - which is inversely correlated with higher education (among the emigrants) but positively correlated with income, social status and many measures of satisfaction including standard of living. This means that a good proportion of respondants were satisfied with not only their standard of living but with the state of the union, so to speak, their freedoms, their political control, etc. All of those are not in any one survey, but given the time I could prove that based on the research in the book - and this set of surveys was on recent emigrants! Is that because they had succeeded in making a paradise out of the USSR? No. Its because these kind of surveys tell you nothing!

The high proportion of politically connected respondants that had a high standard of living and believed in the regime tell you that many were "satisfied" in part at least because of ties to the dictatorship. Its not because these people are evil communists - as we all picture evil NAZIs - so much as because they have never experienced anything else, at least until they emigrate. At some point they realize that it isn't a great life - maybe because their life is in danger - and they leave. But they can still tell you how good it was at the time. But how does it compare to life in the US? Who knows! The survey won't tell you. And a survey taken while they are still living there would tell you even less. Hence the uselessness of happiness polls.

This is an emigrant survey as I said ... Why would they say that they were happy, when they then emigrated? Some got in trouble right before they left - the survey asks about the time before they decided to emigrate - others simply respond positively to the questions even though they had reason to want to leave. That is why I don't trust subjective questionaires.

86% of respondants read the Soviet state owned newspaper, including 91% of managers (who have a higher standard of living).

38% attended meetings of people's control/militia/courts.

Also, apparently Trinidad is the happiest place on earth, according to happiness polls, I think, but I am not sure why - or that I would want to live there.

Barkley Rosser writes:


Check Carol Graham's papers and book for happiness studies of Russia.

The latest numbers I have seen on a ten point scale (with higher happier) have the US in the 7-8 range while Russia is in the 3-4 range, pretty low on the happiness scale. They were not all that much happier before.

There are a lot of studies out there. Quite a few of the Caribbean and Central American countries rate pretty highly on these lists, for whatever reason. Again, cross-country comparisons are much less useful than panel studies that follow specific individuals over time.

Different countries have different cultural attitudes about what they say to people asking them such questions, with some feeling like they should say they are happy (some argue that such attitudes explain why Nordic countries rate so highly on these lists, despite some of them having pretty high suicide rates). Others contain people who like to whine and grumble a lot. Some say this characterizes the Russians, thus explaining their low ratings. Are they really that unhappy? Who knows...

dearieme writes:

They produce the best booze in the world and still they are gloomy? Inexplicable.

Grindle writes:

For some reason the idea of happiness studies gives me the creeps.

However, an interesting topic to study would be to see if the governments that try to make their citizens happy as a matter of policy tend to have citizens that make good booze.

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