Bryan Caplan  

A Few Good Laughs About Happiness

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Here's a pretty funny interview (free registration required) with Lord Richard Layard on happiness research. Highlights:

Layard's big thing is taxation. He is convinced that paying taxes makes us really happy and that if we paid more we would be even happier. 'Taxation is not really an infringement of freedom, you see. It creates freedom,' he says.

Although some of what Layard says makes sense, this does not. I remind him of Britain in the 1970s, when the rich left the country and the 'brain drain' occurred. And what of aspirational people who hope one day to earn decent money, but don't want to give a third of it to the tax man? Why else do so maw of us go to a great deal of trouble to pay less tax by legal means? Sweden has a high rate of tax and an even higher suicide rate. Surely if people were happy to pay high taxes, Layard's own party would be advocating it?

[...]

'What I am saying above all,' he remarks, slowly, 'is that we must have more equality.'

'But some people are always more equal than others. The smallest differences cause just as much envy as the biggest. Are you saying people were happier in the Soviet Union?' 'Er, no. I'm not saying people were happier in the Soviet Union.'

[...]

Layard is an odd man. A happy man who bangs on about unhappiness. A comfortably off man who rails against wealth. I can't quite see how this makes him fully qualified to tell the government what to do about our wellbeing. In any case, in the end happiness is no one's business but our own. If Lord Layard told my plumber that he should give up the rat race and pay more taxes, he would probably get a bop on the snozzle for his trouble.

I bet Arnold will say that this interview confirms that happiness research is quackery.

But it confirms my view that leftists who study happiness suffer from severe confirmation bias. Happiness research has all sorts of uncomfortable implications for the left, on everything from labor market regulation to negative externalities to complaining about inequality. The science is pretty good; the problem is that most people who study happiness look at the policy implications through left-tinted glasses.


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COMMENTS (8 to date)
Yahoo writes:

Germany's in the semis! I'm happy, confirmation bias my a**.

Omer K writes:

I got absolutely nothing against socialism.
By all means, if you want to redistribute hard earned money of some people to others be my guest.
But, may I suggest that we also hold lotteries to marry off supermodels to random males in the population at large? And also perhaps post a guard at all famous actors living quarters and whisk away 1/3rd of the female suitors from them and lotterize them too?

Also, I would like to stop all this damned voting business! Lets lotterize who we make senators or president or Commander in Chief. I, personally, would love to have my finger on the little red button... if only for a little while.

chris writes:

I think you're missing the point of Layard. His book isn't a serious academic work - it's a play for power. He wants to win the attention of Gordon Brown, our likely next PM. To do this, he needs an illiberal argument for greater equality. Rawls and Dworkin don't too this - they're too interested in freedom. So why not rehash some twaddle about interpersonal comparisons of utility?
This, I think, is the only explanation for why an intelligent man should talk such nonsense.

Patrik writes:

I have came to hold you to a high standard and I am confident you would never use conventional wisdom without some background checking. However, just to be on the safe side, I wish to point out that the notion of Sweden as a country with high suicide rates is the most persistent myth about my native land. It is surprisingly stronger than the notion of the Swedish bikini-team, another myth originating from America that for some has much greater appeal.

I immediately come to think of Arnold's model. Here the Suicide-myth is part of quadrant III and should move into quadrant I. For some reason that has not happened in the last 50 years. Arnold says that empiricism threatens these ideas. I'd say that the self-confirmation in this case is much stronger than any empirical pressure.
Factor in the cost of being falsely informed and the pressure rises. Sweden’s social state does not seem like something that affects any American's decisions; hence cost is close to zero.

Or, maybe it is so that clever Americans are using one stereotype to break another. By confronting the notoriously silent Swedes with something they feel compelled to correct they might actually have a conversation.

For info on Swedish suicides
http://jrc.freality.org/contrib/sweden_suicide.html
http://www.girardin.org/fabien/blog/2005/01/29/the-myth-of-swedish-suicide/
(http://www.sweden.se/templates/cs/Article____12355.aspx)

dearieme writes:

Almost everyone experiences intense pleasure when the opportunity arises to tell someone in authority to bugger off. Including the tax man. And Lord Layard.

Niclas Berg writes:

"Sweden has a high rate of tax and an even higher suicide rate"

Eeeh... I don´t think so. If that were the case more than 50 percent of all swedes would have been suicidal.

Marc A Cohen writes:

I recently watched a skit opn the Comedy Channel, on the show "Mind of Mencia". The host, Carlos Mencia, voiced confusion as to why fat people aren't happy. He declared "happiness is doing what you love, a whole lotta' times".

I have never heard from any source a better functional or theoretical definition of happiness.

conchis writes:

"He is convinced that paying taxes makes us really happy and that if we paid more we would be even happier."

I'm pretty sure that Layard doesn't claim that paying more tax will may any particular individual happier - which is the only sense in which this view might appear ridiculous. On the contrary, his claim is that other people paying more tax will make any given individual happier (something I wouldn't have thought was that contentious) and that the net effect will be positive (contentious, but far from ridiculous).

"The smallest differences cause just as much envy as the biggest."

Not according to any of the evidence I've seen.

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