Happy clappy leftists, or more leftist claptrap?

Jeffery Sachs et al at Columbia University's "Earth Institute" are making another push for big government. But their arguments about happiness are flawed

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Andrew Gibson
On 10 April 2012 12:51

All leftists come after your liberty, but each leftist comes after your liberty in his own way.

The approach of choice this month is a “World Happiness Report” from The Earth Institute (Columbia University) edited by Jeffery Sachs, John Helliwell and Richard Layard and published in tandem with the holding of a UN conference (see here and here).

The report ranks countries by happiness, thereby supporting the quest to measure national well-being by something other than GNP.

The writing is lucid and serious. But the central messages are wearily familiar and wrong: “the lifestyles of the rich imperil the poor” says the report’s introduction, and anyway, money alone can’t make you happy, so political arrangements that create wealth should not be as esteemed as they are.There are serious problems with this not so coded attack on free-market outcomes.

First, it is an Aunt Sally. Sachs told the conference that “GNP by itself does not promote happiness.” But nobody says it does. We can all agree that happiness is heavily dependent on factors such as social relations, family ties, access to culture, and employment. But economic growth can certainly ameliorate many problems (such as by creating jobs).

Second, the authors emphasise the aggregate over the individual (though they do examine both). The report argues that affluence has created its own set of afflictions, such as obesity, diabetes, and addiction to shopping. But these are conditions and experiences of free individuals, not a “system”.

Victoria Beckham’s shopping sprees are hardly born out of rage against a competitive market in fresh bread, or the symmetric sharing of real-time information on the local bourse. (I haven’t asked her: I’m guessing.) 

Third, the left (and it is a leftist critique) is seeking to skew the scoring of policy outcomes. How can one evaluate social relations? Or rank mental health against, say, healthy diet? How does my access to a football game tally against your access to a church service? We are both “happy”, but how happy?

The report considers these issues at length, reviewing numerous regression analyses and considering case studies on happiness and brain activity, cross-cultural influences, and other postulated signs and causes of happiness. Yet it fails to convince. It acknowledges that as we grow richer we grow more demanding (and thus not necessarily happier according to polls), but it gives insufficient weight as to how and why we grow richer over time – namely, private capital accumulation and entrepreneurial activity undertaken with a view to being more prosperous.

Inevitably perhaps, we are told that visible inequality is a source of unhappiness. That is, resentment and a sense of entitlement are legitimised as drivers of policy. But visible inequality as a driver of aspiration, at least for the young, is downplayed.

More generally, and beyond the Earth Institute report, the left is also wrong to argue that giving money to the less-well-off typically creates more happiness than leaving the money with the rich who created it. 

People cultivate themselves in different ways and at different speeds. If you give two people £5,000, and one spends it on a holiday while the other spends it on an artwork by an emerging artist he has followed for some time, who is the happier? We can’t say, because one simply cannot make inter-personal comparisons of happiness.

What is a unit of happiness, and how many do you have right now? In a meta-analysis of other reports, The Earth Institute team work to justify both objective and subjective measurements of happiness, but the scratching search for validation from the work of others is Toynbee-like in tone if not in degree of desperation.

All we can know for sure about happiness is the rank an individual places on his own preferences, as revealed in a competitive market place. If I take the holiday and not the artwork, that’s because I prefer the holiday. Meanwhile, you can do what you want. That is how you maximise happiness.

The point was put well by Von Mises in “The Anti-Capitalist Mentality”: “A man who buys a television set thereby gives evidence to the effect that he thinks that the possession of this contrivance will increase his well-being and make him more content than he was without it. If it were otherwise, he would not have bought it.” 

Unless of course he doesn’t know what is good for him, which is exactly where the left comes in.

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