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The Folly of Wellbeing in Public Policy

The idea that Government policy should focus more on promoting wellbeing has been gaining support. Proponents of this view argue that happiness indicators have stagnated over decades because, they argue, governments have paid too much attention to maximizing a materially-based measure of economic welfare, Gross Domestic Product, rather than a more holistic indicator based on happiness.  This premise is clearly false.   Economics has undoubtedly been important in post-war political life, but it has not always been a decisive factor in determining the outcome of elections. Clinton’s Party lost the election in 2000 despite years of prosperity, Margaret Thatcher led the tories to re-election in 1983 despite the 1980-82 recession, and Tony Blair overwhelmingly defeated the Conservatives in 1997 after several years of strong economic growth. The fact is politicians do exhibit concerns over a wide range of issues where GDP is not the immediate focus.  For instance immigration and crime are two very live issues that no serious politician can afford to ignore. Yes, economics and economic policy matters to voters, but so do other issues, and it is wholly misleading to suggest that policy is focused solely on the maximization of GDP.    GDP as a concept has been criticized as it does not capture wider social and environmental costs and benefits within a society.  But the simple fact is that GDP was never intended to include them in the first place.  The purpose was to measure the value of the output of an economy, as far as possible using market based prices to do so. The question of measuring non-market output is conceptually different to that of happiness and well-being, but it is often confused with them in practice.  Namely:  Should we, and if so how, extend the concept of GDP to include more ‘non-market’ factors?   A wide range of adjustments to the basic measure of GDP have been suggested, such as weighting income by the degree of inequality, deducting the value of ‘bads’ such as time spent commuting, valuing work in the house, and so on.    However, the wellbeing movement goes far beyond tinkering with what is and what is not included in GDP. It suggests replacing it altogether with a measure which purports to describe not the material prosperity of a population, but its happiness.   Surveys on the levels of happiness reported by individuals have been carried out over a few decades in most Western countries. In general there is no apparent trend to be found, either up or down. Over the same period, average material standards of living (GDP per head) have shown a clear upward trend. This seems to support the old maxim ‘money does not buy you happiness’! The fact that measured happiness has not increased over decades is viewed by some commentators as indicating a flaw in our society which must be corrected through government intervention.  Indeed the lack of correlation between happiness and GDP is indicative of a similar non-trend across many other variables: expenditure, life expectancy, racial and gender inequality.  This suggests that attempting to improve the human lot through any policy – not just through pursuing economic growth – is entirely futile. Alternatively, we could conclude that happiness data over time shows little movement because it does not have much meaning.   When happiness is measured, people are asked to register their level of happiness on a scale of n categories (e.g. 1 = ‘not happy’, 2 = ‘fairly happy’ or 3 = ‘very happy’). Discrete categories mean that people have to undergo large discrete change in their happiness in order for this to be registered by the indicator so noticeable changes in average happiness can only come about through substantial numbers of people moving category. Furthermore the happiness data can exhibit no indefinite trend; in answering a survey in which levels of happiness are measured on an n-point scale, the data is therefore bounded between one and n. In contrast, at least as it is presently defined, real GNP can exhibit no upper bound.    More subtle recent work is in fact suggesting that there is a clear and positive connection between life satisfaction and income, and that there appears to be no cut-off point to this.  In a paper published in 2010 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton distinguished two aspects of well-being.  First, life satisfaction, defined as the thoughts which people have about their life when they think about it.  Second, emotional well-being, which refers to the emotional quality of an individual’s everyday experience, the frequency and intensity of emotions such as joy, anger, sadness. The results of Khaneman and Deaton are striking.  Life satisfaction is unequivocally related in a positive way to income, but emotional well-being is not. In these recent studies, GDP does therefore appear to continue to have wider value as an indicator of a successful society, over and above its direct purpose of measuring material prosperity.   Despite such recent developments happiness advocates continue to insist that a single measure of happiness should be the only way of evaluating policy and progress. The problem is not merely that this lobby wants to replace GDP with a happiness index, it is the belief that by measuring happiness, it then becomes subject to prediction and control by policy makers. Of course, the fact that economics has made little or no progress in its ability to predict and control the macro economy might be seen to suggest that same fate awaits the happiness index and its devotees.  It is simply not possible to obtain systematically reliable predictions of aggregate happiness indices, any more than it is for GDP. We cannot predict with accuracy the next shake of a true dice, and neither can we do so for happiness.    Indeed, government attempts to increase measured happiness, rather than making life better for us, may well actually do the opposite: create arbitrary objectives which divert civil service. energies from core responsibilities; give many people the message that happiness emanates from national policy rather than our own efforts; and create pressure for Government to appear to increase an indicator which has never before shifted systematically in response to any policy or socio-economic change.   These are exactly the mistakes of the target-driven mentality which has come to pervade the British public sector.  We should learn from these rather than replicate them.   By Paul Ormerod. Read Paul’s full chapter on the subject in the recent IEA publication …and the Pursuit of Happiness available here.


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