‘The question was whether it is more important to provide individuals with money or with autonomy. Our results suggest that providing individuals in nations with autonomy has overall a larger and more consistent effect on well-being than money. Money leads to autonomy (Welzel et al., 2003; Welzel & Inglehart, 2010), but it does not add to well-being or happiness.’
That is from the concluding paragraph of an article by Ronald Fischer and Diana Boer, ‘What is more important for national well-being: Money or autonomy?’, recently published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
The question of whether it is more important to provide individuals with money or autonomy strikes me as odd. Who has the power to choose whether individuals should be provided with money or autonomy? Governments don’t normally have that power.
I suppose it is possible to imagine a powerful paternalistic ruler contemplating whether to give his serfs a monetary bonus or to give them autonomy. It is clear from their article that when the authors refer to autonomy they are talking about a situation where individuals ‘can make their own choices in life’ rather than, for example, just choose what hobbies to pursue in their spare time. If our paternalistic ruler is contemplating giving his serfs the power to make their own choices in life, what he has in mind must involve economic freedom and opportunities for wealth creation.
When individuals have the opportunity to do so, they tend to use their own labour, skills and property for purposes that they value. Those purposes include cooperating with others for mutual advantage e.g. through specialization and exchange, and developing better products and more efficient technologies. Recognition of individual autonomy thus underpins the specialization, exchange and innovation that are integral to wealth creation.
The quoted passage refers to an article by Welzel and Inglehart in support of the proposition that ‘money leads to autonomy’. As discussed in my last post, one of the points made in that article is that in countries with higher levels of economic development (i.e. countries with higher self-expression values) people tend to achieve higher life satisfaction to a greater extent through activities that enhance autonomy (feelings of agency). Economic freedom leads to wealth and wealth leads to greater enjoyment of autonomy through pursuit of objectives further up the hierarchy of needs than survival and financial security.
The finding by Fischer and Boer that ‘money does not add to well-being’ doesn’t actually mean that income or wealth makes no contribution to well-being. It seems to me that what the finding means is that the contribution of income to well-being is encompassed in the contribution of income to individualism (self-expression values).
The authors’ research involved constructing indexes to compare negative psychological well-being, anxiety and burnout in different countries by combining the results of a large number of studies throughout the world. Statistical analysis was then undertaken to determine the extent to which these indexes could be explained by income levels or an indicator of individualism. When income and individualism were included separately in some of the analyses both of these variables were statistically significant, but when they were included together income became statistically insignificant. This suggests that the effects of income on well-being tend to be incorporated in the individualism (self-expression) variable.
I doubt whether that result would surprise many economists. First, it is well known that as incomes rise people tend to place a higher value on leisure (the income elasticity of demand for leisure is positive). Second as leisure increases, an increasing proportion of income tends to be spent on goods that are complementary to leisure (e.g. holiday packages). Third, goods that account for an increasing proportion of spending (goods with high income elasticity of demand) tend to be more strongly related to individual self-expression than to survival. Finally, increased wealth is valued for the options it provides as well as for the goods that are purchased with it. There are precautionary motives for accumulation of wealth e.g. as insurance against unemployment or ill health. People also value the option to be able to take advantage of opportunities (e.g. the holiday adventure of a lifetime) that may arise in future.
As I see it, the greater happiness of people in high-income countries can probably be attributed to greater satisfaction of fundamental human needs related to autonomy, relatedness and competence in those countries. When individual agency has been recognized, people have tended to use their autonomy for good purposes, establish better relations with others, become more competent and create wealth. The wealth is important only to the extent that it helps individuals to pursue purposes that they value – and to enjoy autonomy, good relations with others and a sense of achievement.