Wednesday, March 31, 2010

How should wellbeing be considered in providing policy advice?

Every public policy analyst should know that the correct answer to this question is that wellbeing should be considered by comparing outcomes under existing institutions with likely outcomes under the alternative policies that are being contemplated. Bonus marks should be awarded to analysts who suggest that the risks associated with alternative policies should also be considered. Any analyst who suggests that comparisons should be made between the outcomes of existing policies and an unachievable perfect system should be recommended for a career change e.g. writing speeches for politicians.

What are the likely outcomes that are most relevant to consideration of wellbeing? Most economists would probably answer in terms of comparing the consumption possibilities over time associated with the alternative policies being considered. They might talk about potential Pareto improvements or about benefits and costs, including non-market benefits and costs. They might also talk about discount rates and distributional considerations. But I think the answer most economists would give could be fairly easily translated into a comparison of consumption possibilities over time.

The Australian Treasury provides a somewhat different answer in its wellbeing framework for provision of policy advice. Among the five dimensions of its wellbeing framework the Treasury does include consumption possibilities, the distribution of consumption possibilities and the level of risk that people are required to bear . The other two dimensions, however, are the level of opportunity and freedom that people enjoy – which is listed first – and the level of complexity that people are required to deal with.

When I first read the document containing Treasury’s wellbeing framework the first thing that struck me was the number of references to Amartya Sen. My first thought was somewhat cynical. I thought that the Treasury was feeling unloved and had decided to change its public image. It seemed to me that Treasury was sending out a signal that it was prepared to entertain broader concepts of wellbeing in order to counter the argument that it had a narrow economic focus. The Treasury had, of course, had a broad concept of well-being for a long time - at least since it issued a paper in the 1960s discussing limitations of GDP measurement - but it had also earned reputation over a long period for provision of hard-headed policy advice that was often unpalatable to governments. Since this had encouraged the development of competing, more political, sources of advice it seemed to me that the Treasury had decided that it needed to soften its image in order to stay in the game.

However, having looked more closely at the Treasury wellbeing framework, I now think it may be worth considering seriously as a move to consider broad issues relating to opportunity and flourishing, such as the issues that I am interested in on this blog. (See, for example, ‘Is the good society a useful concept?)

The Treasury document explains the relevance of Sen’s work as follows:

‘The recent work of Sen has sought to incorporate aspects of freedom from both the utilitarian and classical liberal approaches. He argues that freedom does have a special status for wellbeing, beyond its impact on happiness or pleasure. However, he expands the focus beyond simply the rights available to individuals, to include their effective opportunities to exercise those rights, given their personal and social circumstances’.

Sen’s concept of freedom is defined by ‘our capability to live the kinds of lives we have reason to value’. The main problem I have with this concept of freedom is Sen’s incorporation of a role for public debate and democratic decision-making in determining what kinds of lives we have reason to value. It seems to me that Sen’s capability concept doesn’t deserve the freedom label because it contains a strong element of paternalism.

This does not mean, however, that I think Treasury is on the wrong track in identifying opportunity and freedom in its wellbeing framework. As Robert Sugden has recently suggested, it is possible to conceive of opportunity as resting on ‘an understanding of persons as responsible rather than rational agents’. Each individual viewing the world from the standpoint of her own desires and beliefs, accepting her own entitlements as given and accepting responsibility for her own actions can value expanded opportunities for herself. (‘Opportunity as mutual advantage’, Economics and Philosophy (26)).

I don’t see any reason why Treasury should have any difficulty with the idea that in discussing opportunity and freedom it should view individuals as responsible for their own actions, even though they do not always act as rational agents. This does not preclude consideration of the consequences of paternalistic interventions – it just helps avoid confusing the meaning of freedom.

I had also intended to include discussion of the complexity dimension in this post, but I will leave that for another day. (Postscript: The discussion continues here.)

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