Tuesday, March 8, 2011

What is wrong with the way governments are pursuing happiness objectives?

There can be no doubt that western democratic governments have been attempting to promote the happiness of citizens for a long time. They may not talk much about attempting to achieve the greatest happiness for the greatest number, or any similar high-sounding principle, but they have a wide range of policies intended to promote the well-being of citizens in general or of various groups. When it comes to discussion of government policy most citizens could be broadly described as utilitarians. We may feel strongly about rights, but we have come to expect policy debates to focus on the effects of proposed policy changes on particular groups of gainers and losers and on the wider community.

As I see it there is nothing inherently wrong with governments seeking to enable us to live happier lives, particularly since this is what many citizens want. It is certainly better to have people in government trying to enable us to live happier lives than for them to be trying to make themselves happier at our expense. The main problem as I see it is that the approaches that we – the people in western democracies – have been encouraging governments to adopt to help us to live happier lives have often been counter-productive.

The first problem has to do with our perceptions of the nature of happiness. I think we have been too ready to assume that the best way to enable people to live happier lives is to attempt to control their lives for them. Thus, for example, people are taxed during their working lives to provide health care or retirement incomes that they could afford to provide for themselves. Added to this we have proposals to prevent people from saving too little, working too hard, gambling too much, eating too much and so forth. We need to consider whether the humans are able to flourish if they do not have control of their own lives.

The second problem has to do with the idea that governments could promote the happiness of society if only it could be measured correctly. There has been an ongoing debate about the shortcomings of GDP as a well-being measure and various alternatives are being proposed, including some involving direct measurement of happiness. We need to consider whether it makes sense to discuss the relative merits of different indicators as though all the different factors that are important to the flourishing of any group of individuals can be captured by a single statistic.

The third problem has to do with the effects of government pursuit of happiness on individual flourishing. The more governments take over responsibility for our happiness, the more restrictions they impose on the opportunities that are available to us. For example, if governments regulate to reduce working hours in order to enable people to enjoy more leisure, this restricts the opportunities available to people who have strong personal reasons for working longer hours. We need to consider more carefully the likely effects of such government interventions.

The fourth problem has to do with the effects of government pursuit of happiness objectives on the social fabric. The opportunities available to individuals depend to a large extent on the kind of society they live in. If they live in a corrupt society in which rule of law is breaking down, their opportunities for mutually beneficial interactions with other citizens are likely to be diminished. Incentives for corruption are obviously stronger when governments intervene extensively to regulate the behaviour of citizens. We need to consider how successful different societies have been in containing corruption in the face of such incentives.

These issues are to be discussed in a book I am currently writing, with the provisional title:
We need to be
Free to Flourish

The introductory chapter of the book is available here. Comments would be appreciated. (Please do not be offended if I do not respond immediately because it may take a few days to re-surface, or come down to earth from other activities.)

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