Tuesday, December 14, 2021

What have you been thinking about this year?


I expect that many readers of this blog will have spent some time this year thinking about the response of governments to the COVID-19 pandemic. That is a topic I have been thinking about, but I have not previously blogged about it this year. I wrote about it on this blog in March and October 2020. With the benefit of hindsight, I think that what I wrote then is defensible, although not particularly illuminating.I set out to write something about the costs and benefits of lockdowns a few weeks ago, but got sidetracked into considering the WELLBY approach to assessing the value of a human life. I thought I might write on that topic in this article but after some additional reading I have decided to adopt less ambitious objectives. My objectives are to consider:

  • why there is disagreement on such basic issues as whether lockdowns work;
  • whether it would be desirable to have a uniform regulatory approach in all jurisdictions; 
  • what we should learn from policies adopted in East Asia; and
  • how we should be thinking about government intervention.

Do lockdowns work?

I don’t think disagreement about the effectiveness of lockdowns can be attributed solely to the ideologically blinkers of the participants in policy debates. Some people who are not ideologically opposed to much other government regulation – including Paul Frijters, Gigi Foster, and Michael Baker (authors of The Great Covid Panic) claim that lockdowns do not prevent deaths. On the other side of the debate, some classical liberals who are opposed to much government regulation, nevertheless saw merit in lockdowns - at least during the early stage of the pandemic - to buy time to enable hospitals to prepare for an influx of patients requiring treatment.

The reasoning behind lockdowns is that if you can get people to stay far enough apart from each other, they cannot infect each other. The most obvious problem in getting people to stay at home that is that they need to go to shops to buy food and, in some instances, to deliver health and other “essential” services.  

Lockdowns seemed to suppress virus transmission in Australia in the first half of 2020. In October 2020 I suggested that the combination of self-isolation, shutdowns and lockdowns had worked well in April and May of that year. I have become more pessimistic about the efficacy of lockdowns in Australia this year.  Lockdowns seem to have become less effective in Australia in presence of more infectious strains of the virus, and a decline in public support for lockdowns which was particularly evident in Melbourne - the world’s most locked down city.

Some evidence from other parts of the world suggests that lockdowns have never been effective in reducing death rates. For example, despite its relatively elderly population, Florida did not experience higher death rates than other regions of the United States after abandoning lockdown policies.

The chart shown above (based on a survey conducted by YouGov, an international research data and analytics group) suggests an important reason why the effectiveness of lockdowns is likely to depend on context. Willingness to comply with such regulations is much higher in some countries than others. I think the relatively high compliance level in Australia reflects strong public support for the regulations rather than the substantial penalties that applied if non-compliance was detected. The regulations were difficult to police even in the presence of strong public support, and would have been impossible to police if blatant non-compliance had become widespread.

Would it be desirable to adopt a uniform approach in all jurisdictions?

Differences in support for regulation and associated differences in willingness to comply, are good reasons for different approaches to be adopted in different jurisdictions.

Frijters et al suggest a more fundamental reason why a diversity of approaches is desirable. After noting the value of state-level experiments in the United States, including the minimalist policies adopted in South Dakota, the authors suggest:

“The provocative takeaway is that the intelligence of a whole country is enhanced when it contains communities adhering to truths completely opposed to those of the intellectual elites. That takeaway is, moreover, a deep lesson from history that Western countries have embedded into their institutions over centuries. It has been remarked upon before by historians that competition between radically different systems leads Western countries to learn faster than more centralised places like China.”   

What should we learn from the policies adopted in East Asia?

The experience of East Asian countries in preventing deaths from COVD-19 has been held up as example for others to follow. For example, an article by Mingming Ma,  Shun Wang, and Fengyu Wu, published as Chapter 3 of World Happiness Report 2021, concludes as follows:

“In general, we find that the relatively successful story of the five East Asian regions, compared with the six western societies, can be attributed to the stronger and more prompt government responses and better civic cooperation. Except for Japan, all of the East Asian governments implemented more stringent mobility control and physical distancing policies, as well as more comprehensive testing and contact tracing, especially at the early stages of the outbreak. A summary of the government interventions and anti-COVID measures in the East Asian regions indicates that a combination of strong government response systems, early and rigorous mobility control, extensive screening, testing, contact tracing and isolation, coordinated resource allocation, clear communication, enforced self-protection practice, and supportive economic measures are important in fighting COVID-19 outbreaks and resurgence.”

The five East Asian jurisdictions referred to are China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea. The six Western countries included in the study for comparative purposes were France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

 The authors seem to be suggesting that all the East Asian jurisdictions adopted stringent policy responses.

Frijters et al reach a different conclusion using the same data on policy stringency in a study published in Chapter 3 of The Great Covid Panic. The authors group countries and regions into three categories, Minimalists, Pragmatists, and Covid Cults, on the basis of the stringency of the average stringency of their policies during 2020. They found that the minimalists had far fewer claimed Covid deaths than either the pragmatists or the cults and that the pragmatists accumulated only a little over half the death rate of the cults.

It is interesting that most of the East Asian jurisdictions referred to in the first study were classified as either minimalists or pragmatists. Taiwan and Japan were classified as minimalist, and South Korea was classified as pragmatist. The United States and most European countries were classified as cults, along with China, Australia and New Zealand.

It is certainly difficult to maintain that stringency has been a major factor explaining the relative success of policy responses in the East Asia region.  I am not sure what other conclusions can be drawn, except that further study will be required if we are to learn from the experiences of countries adopting different policy responses.

How should we be thinking about government intervention?

Many politicians and other commentators seem to imply that apart from lives lost (or saved) the only other factor that needs to be considered in evaluating policy responses to COVID-19 is their impact on GDP. Far too little account is taken of the future consequences of increases in public debt that have been incurred to support people during lockdowns and the psychological impacts of restricting social interactions for long periods.

When freedom is mentioned by advocates of stringent regulation, it is often viewed as something frivolous that must be sacrificed to prevent deaths from Covid. That is the way a bureaucrat might view the options if given prevention of deaths from Covid as a key performance indicator (KPI). Within that mindset, freedom must be sacrificed to a sufficient extent to ensure that lockdowns work. Prevention of deaths from Covid is seen as being of utmost importance. Just as some soldiers have claimed that they had to destroy villages in order to save them, the single-minded advocates of lockdowns seem to be willing to destroy people’s lives in order to save them.

I am not implying that freedom is more important than health, or that liberty is more important than human flourishing. I am just suggesting that it is unhelpful to view the issues in that way.  

About 15 years ago, after reading some of the writings of Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl, I realized that it makes no sense to think in terms of a need to choose whether priority should be given to liberty or to human flourishing. Human flourishing does not exist apart from the flourishing of individuals, and the flourishing of individuals is not possible without opportunities for self-direction. Once we recognize the importance of self-direction to individual flourishing, that poses the question of what rules of the game – or political / legal order - would allow greatest opportunities for individual self-direction. Liberty is the answer! The protection of individual liberty – or the natural rights of individuals – provides the context in which individuals can flourish in different ways, provided they do not interfere with the rights of others. (You can find further explanation and links to the works of Rasmussen and Den Uyl in my book, Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing.)

Recognition of the foundational role of liberty doesn’t tell us what rules of the game should apply in a pandemic. However, it does tell us that we should be looking for rules of just conduct that would provide an appropriate balance between the different interests of individuals in getting on with their lives and avoiding exposure to infection.

The discussion earlier in this article suggests:

  • The most appropriate rules in any society must depend, to a large extent, on the degree of support for them.
  • A diversity of approaches in different jurisdictions is highly desirable to provide greater opportunities to learn from the experience of others.
  • Different interpretations of the East Asian experience suggests that some caution is required to ensure that we learn the right lessons from the experience of others.

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

How are life satisfaction ratings related to living standards evaluations?


It is well known that in wealthy countries, further improvement of average incomes has only a small impact on average life satisfaction. Diametrically opposed explanations have been offered.

On the one hand, there are those who say that if rising incomes have little effect on average life satisfaction, that must mean that their apparent impact on living standards is a mirage – rising incomes do not count as progress.

On the other hand, there are those who say that average life satisfaction numbers are garbage – you can’t expect to get useful information by asking people to rate their satisfaction with life on a 10-point scale. They say that rising average incomes provide an accurate picture of progress.

In my view, those opposing explanations are both unhelpful to an understanding of the relationship between living standards and life satisfaction. In my book, Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing, I explain that rising incomes result in actual improvements in living standards, and count as progress because that is what people aspire to have. Since self-direction is integral to human flourishing, it is obvious that progress is inextricably linked to conditions that enable individuals to meet their aspirations more fully. In the book, I also explain why I think average life satisfaction is an appropriate measure of psychological well-being at a national level. I suggest that psychological well-being, along with wise and well-informed self-direction, is one of several basic goods that a flourishing human could be expected to have.

The moving benchmark problem.

The failure of life satisfaction to reflect improved living standards is explained as follows in my book:

“The happiness surveys behind this puzzle, often referred to as the Easterlin puzzle, ask respondents to rate their lives relative to benchmarks such as the best possible life. Let us assume that when a person in a high-income country, call him Bill, answered that question in 1990, and he gave a rating of 8/10 for his life. Since then, Bill’s income has increased at about the same rate as the average for the country in which he lives, and there have been no abnormal changes in the circumstances of his life. In January 2020 … he again rated his life as 8/10. …

Bill’s income has risen, but his rating of his life has not risen.

The problem is that the survey prompted Bill to rate his life against a moving benchmark. Bill’s view of what constitutes the best possible life is likely to have risen over time. The people he sees living such a life have obtained access to better communication technology, and other things that have potential to enhance the quality of life. If you ask people to rate their current lives relative to a benchmark that is moving upwards over time, measurement error is inevitable.”

Ways to avoid the moving benchmark problem include the ACSA approach previously discussed on this blog (here and here). For reasons best known to themselves, happiness researchers have not shown much interest in using that approach to test the extent to which life satisfaction measures are distorted by moving benchmarks.

Living standards comparisons

The moving benchmark problem does not arise when people are asked how their standard of living compares with that of their parents when they were about the same age. Surveys of that kind have tended to provide information consistent with perceptions of ongoing progress with rising incomes in wealthy countries.

There is no plausible reason why such inter-generational comparisons should be viewed as less credible than life satisfaction ratings, or vice versa. As I see it, they are cognitive evaluations of different things. The intergenerational comparisons are measuring perceptions of progress, and the life satisfaction ratings are measuring current psychological well-being.

Merging life satisfaction and living standards evaluations

In order to obtain a better understanding of the linkage between perceptions of progress and current life evaluations, it is necessary to bring those different cognitive evaluations together in some way. That has been made possible by inclusion in the latest round of the World Values Survey of a question asking respondents whether their living standards are higher, lower, or about the same as those of their parents when they were about the same age. The graphs shown above were prepared using the excellent Online Data Analysis facility of the World Values Survey. Information is shown for the United States and Australia, but similar pictures emerge for other high-income countries.

The most obvious point illustrated by the graphs is that people tend to be much less satisfied with their lives if they perceive that their living standards are lower than those of their parents at a comparable age. Their perceptions that their living standards have fallen tends to make them feel grumpy about life.

The second point to emerge is that the life satisfaction ratings of those who perceive that their living standards are better than those of their parents are not much higher than for those who perceive that their living standards are about the same as those of their parents. Their perceptions of progress are not reflected to any great extent in their satisfaction current lives. That result is consistent with my view that life satisfaction is a poor indicator of the extent to which people meet their aspirations for higher living standards.


Perceptions of change in living standards that emerge from intergenerational comparisons are related to the recent history of economic growth in different countries. The greatest percentage perceive that their living standards are higher than their parents in countries that have sustained high rates of growth in per capita GDP over several decades. Of the 54 countries for which data are available, Vietnam has the greatest percentage in that category (90%) and Iraq has the lowest (21%). The corresponding percentages for Australia and the U.S. are 56% and 48% respectively.

Percentages who perceive that their living standards are lower than their parents follow a broadly similar pattern, but in most countries are within the range of 10% to 25%. Of the 54 countries, Zimbabwe is the only one where more than half of respondents perceived that their standard of living was lower than that of their parents. The corresponding percentages for Australia and the U.S. are 15% and 19% respectively.

The age structure of people who perceive themselves to be worse off than their parents suggests that this source of grumpiness is likely to pose a greater problem in Australia and the U.S. in the years ahead. The incidence is lowest among the 65+ age group (7.6% for Australia and 8.4% for the U.S.). The highest incidence in Australia is in the 25-34 age group (20.1%) and in the U.S. in the 35-44 age group (26.4%).


Average life satisfaction provides useful information on psychological well-being at a national level, but is a poor measure of the extent to which people are meeting their aspirations for higher living standards. As expected, people who perceive their standard of living to be higher than that of their parents, do not rate their life satisfaction much higher than those who perceive their standard of living to be about the same as that of their parents. However, people who perceive their standard of living to be lower than that of their parents have markedly lower life satisfaction than the other groups. The percentage of grumpy people in countries such as Australia and the U.S. seems set to rise in the years ahead unless opportunities improve for young people to meet their aspirations for higher living standards.

Thursday, November 25, 2021

How useful is the WELLBY concept in assessing the benefits and costs of alternative policies?


There are good reasons why public policy discussions often revolve around the benefits and costs of alternative policies. Discussions that begin with the consideration of rights often require participants to acknowledge conflicting rights and to weigh up consequences in a search for the principles that can most appropriately be applied.

For example, consider what followed when I suggested recently in a discussion of the merits of lockdowns to counter the spread of COVID19 that such policies should be assessed against the principle that individuals have a right to direct their own flourishing, provided they do not interfere with the similar rights of other people. The latter part of that assertion implies a willingness to consider whether infected people who spread disease are interfering with the rights of others. At an early stage of the discussion, I acknowledged that it would be a step too far to insist that everyone has the right to recklessly endanger the lives of others. I argued that there should nevertheless be a presumption in favour of freedom, and that those who advocate restriction of freedom should be required to demonstrate that the benefits clearly exceed the costs.

That illustrates how the discussion of benefits and costs tends to rule the roost in civilized discussions of public policy. An exchange of different views about rights can be enlightening, but endless repetition of conflicting assertions about rights does not qualify as civilized discussion in my view.

A WELLBY (or Wellbeing Year) is equal to a one-point increment on a 10-point life satisfaction scale. If you assessed your level of life satisfaction as 8/10 in 2019 and 7/10 in 2020, that would be a decline of one WELLBY.

I began thinking about the WELLBY concept while considering how it is possible to measure the costs and benefits of lockdowns, but in this article, I will focus on the usefulness of that concept rather than on the question of whether benefits of lockdowns could ever exceed the associated costs.

Assessing the psychological cost of lockdowns

Indicators of subjective well-being are obviously relevant in assessing the psychological costs associated with policies that require people to stay at home. Available evidence suggests that lockdowns caused a decline in average life satisfaction of about half a point in the UK and similar countries in the
period to March 2021. On that basis, Paul Frijters, Gigi Foster, and Michael Baker estimate that lockdowns cause loss of life satisfaction to the general public in the U.K. of 41,667 WELLBYs per million citizens for each month of lockdown. This estimate is in Chapter 5 of their book, The Great Covid Panic, 2021.

I think that is an appropriate use of the WELLBY concept. If anyone knows of a better way to assess the psychological costs of lockdowns, I would be interested to know what it is.

Frijters, Foster, and Baker incorporate several other items in their assessment of the costs of lockdowns. I will consider one of those later, but I want to turn now to use of the WELLBY concept in the assessment of the main hypothetical benefit of lockdowns, namely lives potentially saved.

Assessing the value of a life saved

Richard Layard and Ekaterina Oparina have published a provocative article using a WELLBY approach to assess the monetary value of preventing the loss of one year of human life (Chapter 8 of World Happiness Report, 2021).

Layard and Oparina begin their discussion by observing that the average WELLBY is 7.5 in advanced countries. On that basis, they claim that preventing the loss of one year of the life of one person saves 7.5 WELLBYs.

The authors draw upon information on the relationship between income and life satisfaction in order to assess the monetary value of that loss. After some discussion of relevant research, they suggest that a coefficient of 0.3 is an appropriate measure of the impact on life satisfaction of a unit change in absolute log income. With average income of $30, 000, the loss of $1 is equivalent to 1/100,000 WELLBYs (0.3/30,000). It follows, they suggest, that “we” should be willing to pay up to around $750, 000 to save a year of life (7.5 WELLBYs).

Layard and Oparina point out that the $750, 000 would be shared over the whole population. Nevertheless, it still seems an extremely large sum to pay to prolong a life by just one year.

One possible source of error is that life may have no value for people with very low life satisfaction, for example those with a rating less than 2/10. If you assume that a life year is equivalent to 5.5 WELLBYs (7.5 minus 2.0), the estimated sum that “we” should be willing to pay to prolong life by one year is reduced to $550, 000. That still seems implausibly high.

The estimate could be further reduced by taking account of the fact that the people who are most vulnerable to COVID19 often have pre-existing ailments that would tend to reduce their life satisfaction, and many of those in nursing homes would be unlikely to live another year in any case.

However, let us return to the question of whether $550,000 is a plausible estimate of what “we” should be prepared to pay to prolong by one year the life of a person with an average life satisfaction rating. An alternative way to approach the issue of determining the monetary value of a year of life is to consider estimates of the impact of changes in healthy life expectancy on average life satisfaction. Regression analysis suggests that the addition of one year to healthy life expectancy adds only 0.033 to average life satisfaction (Table 2.1, World Happiness Report, 2019). The income loss providing an equivalent loss of life satisfaction is only $3,300 (0.033*100,000). That strikes me as an implausibly low estimate of the value of a year of life.

My view of what is a plausible estimate of the value of one year of life is not based solely on my own gut feelings. The assumed value of a life year in cost-benefit analysis typically ranges from $50, 000 to $250, 000. Those assumptions are based on surveys asking people how much they would be willing to pay to extend their lives and estimates of amounts people need to be paid to accept jobs involving greater risks to life.

Estimates of the value of a year of life within that range seem to be broadly consistent with community expectations. Some groups may lobby for lives to be valued more highly in assessing whether life-saving drugs should be subsidized by governments. However, I don’t see large numbers of people suggesting that they would be willing to pay higher taxes to fund that.

There seems to me to be a fundamental problem in attempting to assess the value of a life-year from the relationship between average income and average WELLBYs. As I explain in Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing, psychological well-being is just one of the basic goods of a flourishing human. When you ask individuals open-ended questions about how they are faring, their responses are not confined to the extent that they are “satisfied” with life. They are likely to talk about whether they are achieving their aspirations, the state of their health and their personal relationships. If you ask a person who already has high life satisfaction why they aspire to earn a higher income, they are not likely to claim that they expect a higher income to enable them to become more satisfied with their own life. They are more likely to say that they want to put some money aside for various reasons, for example to assist with education of children or grandchildren, or to have something to fall back on in the event of illness.

If an individual is faced with a decision about whether to use accumulated wealth (or to mortgage their house) to purchase an expensive drug that might prolong their life for a year, the quality of that extended life (WELBYs) is not the only factor that they are likely to consider. The choice they make may well give consideration to their desire to improve opportunities available to the next generation of their family. There is an intergenerational choice involved in placing a value on an additional year of life.

What value should be placed on the lives of potential humans?

Frijters, Foster, and Baker include among the costs of lockdown the shutting down of the in-vitro fertilization (IVF) program during lockdowns in the UK because it was deemed to be a nonessential service. This resulted in about 30 fewer IVF births per million citizens per month of lockdown.

The cost of disruption of the IVF program is not critical to the authors’ conclusion that the cost of lockdowns exceed the benefits. Nevertheless, in my view there is a strong case for it to be taken into account. Potential parents clearly place a high value on the new lives that the program makes possible.

However, the methodology which Frijters, Foster, and Baker use to estimate the cost of disruption of the IVF program is a straightforward application of the WELBY concept to value lives. They calculate that each of these potential humans could be expected to enjoy 480 WELLBYs during his or her life – each is assumed to have a value equal to 6 WELLBYs and to live on average for 80 years. With the loss of 30 IVF babies per month, that amounts to the loss of 14,400 WELLBYs worth of human well-being per month per million citizens.

The reasoning is impeccable if you accept the utilitarian assumptions associated with use of the WELLBY concept to measure the value of a human life. Within that framework, if government policies prevent potential humans from being born, that diminishes the sum of human happiness by the amount of happiness they would have enjoyed during their lifetimes.

I have already indicated that I don’t accept that people value their own lives exclusively on the basis of WELLBYs. However, if I have not yet persuaded you to reject the WELLBY approach to evaluation of lives, you may wish to consider the following possible outcome of applying that approach.

Let us suppose that a government is considering a ban on all forms of contraception and seeks the services of some utilitarian advocates of maximization of human happiness to evaluate the costs and benefits of the proposal. It seems reasonable to predict that the utilitarians would conclude that the additional births resulting from the policy change would result in a large net increase in WELLBYs, and therefore an increase in the sum of human happiness. The more, the merrier they might say!


The WELLBY concept has a useful role to play in evaluation of some policies that have an impact on psychological well-being.

However, the valuation of lives according to the number of WELLBYs individuals might enjoy seems to be at variance with the approach that individuals take in making choices in relation to extension of their own lives. That approach to valuing lives is widely at variance with the approach most people in advanced countries adopt in considering the value of potential lives of the many additional humans that they could bring into the world if they felt inclined to do so. It counts the lives of potential people as having equal value to the lives of the living.

The WELLBY approach to valuation of human life should be rejected.


A survey conducted by UBS has provided relevant information on the proportion of wealth that investors are willing to sacrifice for additional years of life. The survey covered 5,000 wealthy investors in 10 countries. On average, those with financial wealth in the $1 to $2 million range indicated that they were willing to give up 32% of their wealth for an additional decade of healthy living. That may seem a lot, but amounts to only $32,000 to $64,000 per annum when spread over 10 years.

Those figures are far lower than the $750,000 (discussed above) that an application of the WELLBY approach to life evaluation has suggested that “we” should be willing to pay to save a year of life.

Monday, November 15, 2021

What kind of being are you?


Self-reflection tells you that you are a conscious being that is aware of its own existence in the real world. You are aware of having a mind and a body. Since you are a thinking being, you have probably worked out that you exist even when you are not conscious. You have probably also noticed that even people who claim to believe that the physical world is an illusion tend to behave as though they believe it is real. For example, you see them walking through doors rather than walking through walls.

Does the existence of your body indicate that you are an entity. If I could see you, I would affirm that you look like a being that has a distinct and independent existence – that is, an entity.

Do you see yourself as an entity? You may think of yourself as an entity, but how do you think of yourself while you are observing your own thoughts?

You could think of yourself as an observer watching your thoughts pass by like leaves on a stream. Some of the thoughts might be about yourself. If the thought “I am a thinking entity”, passes your mind, you might observe, “I am having the thought that I am a thinking entity”. That is an interesting observation. You can’t deny that you are thinking.

However, if you are an entity, how can you be both the observer and the object that you are observing? Could you be two entities? I don’t think so. The observer, who is you, does not exist independently of the object who is observed, who is also you.

Richard Campbell suggests a way out of this dilemma in his book, The Metaphysics of Emergence. Drop the assumption that you are a fixed, given entity. The alternative he suggests is to perceive yourself as a complex process system. That enables you to perceive of radical reflexivity as a process. He writes:

“If the assumption that there is a fixed, given entity called ‘the self’ …  is rejected, the way is open to understand consciousness as a flow: a complex, emergent and interactive process which is radically reflexive”.

As I discussed in a previous article about Campbell’s book, our observations of the world tell us that many other animals are also aware of their surroundings. We have no problem in understanding that their awareness emerged or evolved to help them to survive and reproduce. Our human consciousness is just another step in that evolutionary process. Radical reflexivity - awareness of our own awareness - has emerged to help us to flourish as individuals in the cultures in which we live.

Campbell suggests that the flow of consciousness is analogous to a river maintaining its identity as it flows though different places. Your understanding of who you are is informed by the flow of your consciousness through time. In other words, your sense of identity is informed by your autobiographical memories. Campbell explains that this sense of identity also involves an element of projection into the future:

“I am a complex process system continually projecting myself out of my past into my future, my sense of myself necessarily involves my ‘has been’ and my ‘not yet’.”

As you think about your “not yet”, you might imagine a future that is different than your past. That might be just wishful thinking, or you might be considering what options are available to achieve a vision that you have for your own future.


You are a being that is consciously aware of its own existence in the real world. You may think of yourself as an entity – a being that has a distinct and independent existence. However, that perception is at odds with the fact that you can observe yourself thinking. A single entity cannot be both an observer and the object of observation. It makes more sense to view yourself as a complex process system.

Thursday, October 21, 2021

Would Chinese people accept that human flourishing is inherently individualistic?


The question I have posed for myself has been prompted by a reader of my book, Freedom, Progress, and Human FlourishingHe asked how I would respond if someone offered to pay me to write an edition of the book for Chinese readers. Would I say that the exercise would be pointless because few Chinese readers are likely to be receptive to the ideas in the book? Or would I say that a Chinese edition would need to include a discussion of additional constraints holding back individual flourishing in the PRC?

My book was written primarily for readers living in the Western liberal democracies. It presents human flourishing as an individual aspiration and endeavor, involving the exercise of practical wisdom. I suggest that it is ultimately up to individuals to use their reasoning powers to form their own judgements about the basic goods of a flourishing human. I seek to persuade readers that a flourishing person manifests wise and well-informed self-direction, has good health and psychological well-being, enjoys positive relationships with others, and lives in harmony with nature. I argue that progress occurs when there are growing opportunities for individuals to flourish. Economic growth counts as progress to the extent that self-directed individuals aspire to have improvements in their living standards. (You can read a little more about the book here, and listen to me talk about it here.)

Is Chinese culture opposed to individualism?

Some research on individualism and collectivism may suggest that Chinese people would tend to adopt a collectivist, top-down view of human flourishing, rather than an individualistic, bottom up, view. However, the World Values Survey (WVS) does not support the view that Chinese people are too preoccupied with filial piety, altruism, and obedience to have individual aspirations. Data from the 2017-2020 wave of the WVS suggest that the percentage of people in China who say that one of their main goals in life is to make their parents proud (23%) is not particularly high; corresponding figures for other jurisdictions are Taiwan (27%), Hong Kong (15%), Singapore (28%), Australia (26%) and U.S. (31%).  The percentage in China who identify independence as a desirable child quality is relatively high (78%); corresponding figures for other jurisdictions are Taiwan (68%), Hong Kong (55%), Singapore (56%), Australia (52%) and U.S. (55%). The percentages who identify unselfishness, good manners and obedience as desirable child qualities are not particularly high (29%, 84% and 6% respectively) by comparison to Taiwan (23%, 74% and 9%), Hong Kong (11%, 73% and 9%), Singapore (27%, 79% and 17%), Australia (42%, 84% and 19%) and U.S. (28%, 48%, and 20%).

It is not difficult to find aspects of Chinese cultural heritage that imply an important role for individual self-direction. The Daoist philosophy of skill is directly relevant to question of what nature tells us about how we can flourish as individuals. There is a relevant post about the Laozi, Zhuangzi and Liezi on this blog.

Cultural support for economic growth

The discussion of determinants of economic growth in Chapter 5 of my book suggests that aspects of culture that are favourable to entrepreneurial innovation include interpersonal trust, respect and tolerance, and individual self-determination. WVS data suggests that the percentage of people who consider that most people can be trusted is relatively high in China (63.5%) by comparison with Taiwan (31%), Hong Kong (36%), Singapore (34%), Australia (48%) and U.S. (37%). The percentage in China who identify tolerance and respect for other people as a desirable child quality (60%) is not particularly low; corresponding figures for other jurisdictions are Taiwan (73%), Hong Kong (70%), Singapore (64%), Australia (80%) and U.S. (71%). 

A relevant indicator of self-determination in the WVS is the data on ratings of the extent that survey respondents feel they have a great deal of freedom of choice and control over their lives, or alternatively that what they do has no real effect on what happens to them. On the10 point scale, the average scores of Chinese respondents (7.0) were similar to those of Taiwan (7.3), Hong Kong (6.6), Singapore (6.8), Australia (7.5) and U.S. (7.7).

Economic freedom

My discussion of determinants of economic growth also emphasizes the importance of economic freedom and a prevailing ideology that supports economic freedom. Improvements in economic freedom contributed to the high rates of economic growth experienced in China in recent decades. However, the Fraser Institute’s ratings of economic freedom suggest that the process of economic liberalization has now stalled, leaving China’s economic freedom rating for 2019 (6.5 on the 10-point scale) far lower than that of Taiwan (8.0), Hong Kong (8.9), Singapore (8.8), Australia (8.2) and the U.S. (also 8.2).

Productivity growth in China has slowed considerably over the last decade, according to  World Bank and IMF research. IMF estimates suggest annual productivity growth of 0.6% from 2012 to 2017, much lower than the average of 3.5% in the preceding five years (reported by the WSJ). It seems unlikely that China will be able to maintain high GDP growth rates in the absence of substantial economic reforms to promote greater economic freedom.

Ideological constraints

The prevailing ideology of governance in China, Marxism–Leninism, was imported from the West. This one-party state ideology was developed by Joseph Stalin in Russia the 1920s.  The current system of government - with the communist party bureaucracy guiding the state bureaucracy at all levels - was copied from the Soviet Union.

Although the evidence discussed above suggests that people living in the PRC tend to have as individualistic a view of human flourishing as people in the U.S and Australia, it is clear that the leaders of the Chinese government do not recognize fundamental rights that support individual flourishing.

The Myth of Chinese Capitalism, by Dexter Roberts, provides an insightful account of the ideological constraints currently limiting human flourishing in China. The government of the PRC does not even
recognize the rights of people to choose where to live, or to own land:

“Despite huge progress in wiping out poverty, the countryside still has large numbers of poor people and incomes continue to fall behind the rest of the country. This unfortunate fact is in part because of the hukou system, which restricts rural people’s ability to fully integrate into the cities. Equally responsible, however, are the continuing limits on farmers’ rights to the land. While they were given freedom to decide how to use the land they lived on, they were not given ownership.” (p 74)

It is common for local officials to acquire agricultural land for conversion to industrial and commercial use, with farmers being paid little compensation. The user rights are then sold at high prices to developers on the outskirts of cities.

The highest priority of the party-state is to stay in power. That involves a combination of responsiveness and repression to construct a “harmonious society”. Responsiveness takes the form of top-down efforts to reduce disparities in living standards. Repression occurs by suppressing dissident speech, extensive use of monitoring technology and a social credit system which rewards and punishes people based on aspects of their personal behavior that the government wishes to encourage or discourage.

 Daniels suggests:

“For years, China’s leaders have had an unspoken agreement with the people: they guarantee rising living standards and, in turn, the populace tolerates control by a nondemocratic and often unresponsive party.”

What happens if living standards do not continue to rise. Like many other analysts, Daniels is concerned that a “militarily powerful Communist Party facing widespread dissention at home might well seek to distract its citizens by lashing out in a hot spot in the region, such as Hong Kong, Taiwan, or the South China Sea” (p 191).

With the benefit of hindsight, it now seems obvious that gains in economic freedom that occurred in China over the last few decades were the efforts of an authoritarian government to harness market forces for its own purposes, rather than reforms undertaken in recognition of links between liberty and individual flourishing.

At the beginning of this article I offered some gratuitous advice to the leaders of China by quoting from some ancient writings by Lao-Tzu (Verse 57 of the Tao Te Ching). It seems appropriate to end this brief discussion of ideology with another quote from the same source:

“The more prohibitions you have,

the less virtuous people will be.

The more weapons you have,

the less secure people will be.

The more subsidies you have,

the less self-reliant people will be.”


Chinese people are not unduly preoccupied with filial piety, altruism, and obedience. They tend to have an individualistic view of human flourishing that is not greatly different from that of people in the U.S. and Australia. The contemporary culture of Chinese people tends to be favourable to the entrepreneurship likely to be necessary for living standards to continue to rise over the longer term.

However, the ideology of the party-state is much less favourable to ongoing improvement of living standards. Past gains in economic freedom reflected the efforts of an authoritarian government to harness market forces to lift productivity in response to aspirations of the people to enjoy higher living standards. The gains in economic freedom occurred because that suited the purposes of a communist party primarily interested in its own survival, rather than because its leaders had undergone an ideological transformation to become supporters of liberty. The ideological opposition to liberty of general secretary Xi Jinping now seems to be impeding the ongoing expansion of economic freedom that is needed to enable productivity to continue to rise.

Monday, October 4, 2021

Why should economists practice humanomics?


Adam Smith practiced humanomics. It came naturally to him. The famous pioneer of economic science did not need to pretend that humans have been programmed to maximize utility in order to develop his argument that economic specialization stems from a propensity in human nature to “truck, barter, and exchange”.

The word, humanomics, was coined by Bart Wilson, an experimental economist, and is explained in the book, Humanomics, Moral Sentiments, and the Wealth of Nations for the Twenty-First Century, which he co-authored with Nobel winner, Vernon Smith. In that book, humanomics refers to the very human problem of simultaneously living in the personal social world (which is the context which Adam Smith had in mind when writing Moral Sentiments) and the impersonal economic world (which is the focus of Wealth of Nations).

Some important aspects of human behavior cannot be adequately explained if we adopt the assumption, still common in much economic analysis, that individual human behavior is characterized by narrow self-interest. Vernon Smith and Bart Wilson found in their experimental work with people playing economic games that while self-interested utility maximization could explain individual behavior in simulated market contexts, it could not do so in social exchange contexts. In playing two-person trust games, people tend to be more other-regarding than most modern economists assume. I take that to mean that most people are sufficiently civilized and self-regarding to behave with integrity towards others – they see virtue in being trustworthy rather than opportunistic.

Deirdre McCloskey advances the argument for humanomics further in her recent book, Bettering Humanomics. She writes:

“A big part of our human behavior is thinking and talking about human action, not merely solipsistic and thoughtless reaction to, say, a budget constraint. Human action … is the exercise of free will, so typical of humans. It is in fact the free will about which theologians argue. Humanomics therefore goes beyond the artificially narrowed evidence of a silent, solitary, reactive, positivistic, predestined, observational behaviorism.” (p 5)

McCloskey argues that economists should engage in more philosophical reflection about what a speaking species does. The behavioral paradigm of stimulus and response does not adequately explain much of human behavior. Humans often think about the meaning of events before responding to them, and they often consciously explore the options that are available.

Innovation is an example of an economic activity that cannot be adequately understood within a behavioral paradigm that does not allow for thinking and talking. In this context, McCloskey mentions the important contribution of Israel Kirzner in pointing out that real discoveries cannot be pursued methodically – or they would be known before they are known. Innovation requires entrepreneurial alertness. McCloskey adds that a discovery “requires sweet talk to be brought to fruition”:

“An idea is merely and idea until it has been brought into the conversation of humankind”.

McCloskey presents a strong argument that humanomics is needed to explain the great enrichment – the massive improvements in standard of living that have occurred in many countries over the last 200 years. Those who have some familiarity with her trilogy of books on economic history – that should include everyone who is interested in the reasons why the people who live in some countries tend to be wealthier than those who live elsewhere - will not be surprised that she argues that ethics and rhetoric are the “killer app” explaining the great enrichment. She argues that a novel liberty and dignity for ordinary people, including the innovating bourgeoisie, explains the great enrichment.

For present purposes, the important point is that for economists to understand the economic growth process, with its massive implications for human flourishing, they need some knowledge of ethics and rhetoric – ideas in letters and literature that are studied in the humanities. McCloskey argues that if economists consider themselves to be serious scientists, they should use all relevant evidence that they can get their hands on. She makes the point thus:

“A future economics should … use the available scientific logic and evidence, all of it—experimental, simulative, introspective, questionnaire, graphical, categorical, statistical, literary, historical, psychological, sociological, political, aesthetic, ethical.” (p 66)

Many economists spend much of their time on “sweet talk” without being aware of it. I spent most of my working life trying to tell people that incentives matter and that they need to consider whether current institutions – the rules of the game of society – provide appropriate incentives. For example, I am fond of pointing out that if the rules of the game reward rent-seeking – individuals or groups seeking to have governments provide them with assistance at others’ expense - then potential beneficiaries will tend to spend more time rent-seeking and less time engaged in productive activities.

Economists engage in that kind of activity – labelled by some as preaching – because they think that ideas matter and that interests do not always prevail in determining government policies. In my view, people who are trying to obtain greater recognition of the role of institutions and incentives are walking in the footsteps of Adam Smith.

McCloskey might suggest that people like me should consider whether we give too much attention to the role of formal institutions – constitutions, laws, and regulations – and too little attention to ethics and ideology. In discussing the great enrichment she suggests:

“The important “institutions” were ideas, words, rhetoric, ideology. And these did change on the eve of the Great Enrichment”.

The only problem I have with McCloskey’s exposition of humanomics is her dismissal of happiness studies and behavioral economics. Her negative views on these areas of research sit oddly with her argument that economists should consider all available evidence. I agree that many people who are engaged in such research are paternalistic behavioralists, seeking to advise governments how to make people happier. However, I don’t think that provides sufficient reason to suggest that the findings of such research are no relevance to individuals who are looking for information to help themselves to flourish.

In my discussion of the findings of happiness research and behavioral economics in Chapter 7 of my book, Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing, I have tried to adopt a contractarian approach. That is the approach adopted by Robert Sugden, a self-confessed behavioral economist, and an admirer of the contractarianism of James Buchanan, in his book The Community of Advantage. Sugden notes that contractarian recommendations are “addressed to individuals as directors of their own lives, advising individuals how to pursue their own interests”.

I concur with the view of James Buchanan that the heartland of economics is considering human behavior in market relationships and other voluntaristic exchange processes. However, I can see no reason why anyone should consider Philip Wicksteed, or any other economist, who offers practical advice on avoiding common mistakes in decision-making, to be stepping beyond the realm of humanomics.    

When economists step outside their comfort zone of voluntaristic exchange processes, they certainly need to remember to take their bullshit detectors with them. That certainly applies in considering the findings of happiness studies and behavioral economics. It also applies in considering literary contributions, such as a book I read (and commented on here) about the significance for our understanding of happiness of Samuel Richardson’s 18th century novel, Pamela.


Economists should practice humanomics because they can’t expect to be able to understand human behavior unless they do. Humans do not always behave as self-interested maximizers. It makes no sense to assume that human action always occurs at a subconscious level as an automatic response to stimuli. Individuals often think about the meaning of events, consider their options, and talk to others, before responding. Self-direction is integral to human flourishing.

In seeking explanations for human behavior, economists should not confine themselves to a focus on institutions and incentives. They should be open to considering all relevant information that they can get their hands on, including information on ethics, ideology, and happiness ratings.

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Are social movements drivers of progress?


In considering this question my focus is on Mikayla Novak’s recent book, Freedom in Contention, Social Movements and Liberal Political Economy.

Mikayla describes social movements as “sustained collective engagement by multiple participants … aiming to effect change within society”. Mikayla provides an enlightening account of the nature of social movements, the role of entrepreneurship within them, the tactics they use, and of factors that contribute to their success. I focus here on Mikayla’s view that social movements have played a critical role in the realization of liberties enjoyed today in the Western democracies. That line of argument is central to the book, and closely linked to the question posed above.

Before going further, I should note that Mikayla uses an “entangled political economy” framework to examine social networks. That framework, developed by Richard Wagner, views individuals and groups as being intertwined in overlapping relationships of different kinds - collaborative or competitive, or consensual or exploitive. In pursuing their goals, social movements have an irrepressible tendency to entangle with other movements, and with economic and political organizations.

In making the case that social movements have contributed to expanding economic, political, and social freedoms, Mikayla discusses the historical role of some important social movements. The American revolution is discussed as the culmination of a movement resisting imposition of unfair taxation. The Anti-Corn Law League is discussed as a movement rallying public support in opposition to agricultural tariffs that benefitted landowners at the expense of consumers. The movements involved in progressive extension of the voting franchise, including female suffrage activism, are discussed as part of a struggle to gain recognition that all individuals should have equal standing to participate in politics. The success of the American Civil Rights Movement in expanding economic, political, and social freedoms is argued to have inspired subsequent movements including anti-war, environmental and feminist movements.

The author’s coverage of contemporary social movements highlights responses to regulation limiting voluntary productive entanglements of an economic nature. Movements discussed include the Tea Party and the campaign to counter restrictive effects of regulation on availability of medication for people living with HIV/AIDS.

Mikayla also highlights the ongoing challenges posed by cultural-institutional environments that fail to prevent those with political influence using it to obtain benefits at the expense of others, and which repress social movement activities. She paints an alarming picture of rising illiberalism:

“Economic freedom has waned, minorities and many other groups around the world are victimized by violent, reactionary backlash dynamics, and, increasingly, we are meeting the end of a police baton or are being haunted by the constant eye of the surveillance state. All in all, the disturbing trend is that illiberalism appears, again, on the rise.” (p 136)

However, that is followed immediately by a more optimistic message about the future of freedom:

“Nevertheless, it is our position that great encouragement should be taken from the demonstrated self-organizational abilities of ordinary people, worldwide, to formulate social movements to demand their liberties and human rights.” (p 136)


Although Mikayla does not discuss the concept of progress to any great extent, she makes the important point that social evolution tends to be discordant and discontinuous. As a liberal, she focuses on the role of social movements play in the evolution of free and open societies, and expresses strong opposition to “totalizing schemes (drawn up by social movement participants, and by others) aiming at wholesale change to society”.

I believe that social movements have been an important driver of progress, as the concept is defined in my book Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing.  I define progress as growth of opportunities for human flourishing – that means growth of opportunities for all individuals to meet their aspirations more fully. I don’t discuss the role of social movements explicitly, but note that social changes accompanying economic progress have played an important role in improving the opportunities available to women and members of minority groups.

My view of cultural evolution as largely benign and emancipative is consistent with the view of social movements that Mikayla presents. There is, however, a slight difference in emphasis. I view cultural evolution as the net result of progressive struggle and conservative resistance, and argue that conservative resistance serves a useful purpose in averting social changes that might later be widely regretted. Mikayla recognizes that counter-movements may be informed by ideological commitments rather than being reactionary, but she leaves the impression that they are more likely to oppose liberal freedoms than to advance them. (See pages 90-91.)

There is also an interesting difference between the items that Mikayla and I discuss as illiberal tendencies. As noted above, Mikayla emphasizes the tendency for minorities and many other groups around the world to be victimized by violent, reactionary backlash dynamics. The things I write about under this heading include cancel culture, attempts to suppress views of opponents, and terrorism. I think we are both right!

Summing up

Mikayla’s book makes an important contribution in reminding readers in the Western democracies of the emancipative role of social movements in realization of economic, political, and social freedoms that they now tend to take for granted.  In that context, social movements have been important drivers of progress, including the spreading of opportunities for more people to meet their aspirations more fully. Although I am somewhat concerned about the illiberal tendencies in some contemporary social movements, I share Mikayla’s optimism about the abilities of ordinary people to formulate social movements to advance and protect liberty.

Sunday, August 29, 2021

Do people have a right to choose where they will live?


                                        Vietnamese boat people arriving in Australia in 1976

In the Western liberal democracies there are few people who claim that individuals do not have the right to choose where they live. However, many people set limits on the extent to which they recognize that right. They only recognize that foreigners have the right to live in their neighborhood if they meet stringent immigration requirements.

Is that a reasonable view? If people readily accept that individuals should be free to choose where they will live within national borders, why are they reluctant to accept that individuals have a right to choose which country to live in?

If you view national borders as arbitrary lines on maps, it will seem absurd to you that immigration requirements should make it more difficult to re-locate across national borders than within a nation. International migration could normally be expected to be as beneficial as migration within national borders. For example, the potential benefits to both the employees and employers concerned when workers relocate to take up employment opportunities are not necessarily reduced when national borders are crossed. Similarly, the potential benefits to both the grandparents and grandchildren of living in the same locality are not necessarily reduced when national borders are crossed to enable that to happen.

I have been pondering such questions while reading Ilya Somin’s recent book, Free to Move: Foot voting, migration, and political freedom. Somin presents a powerful argument in favour of foot voting – choosing to move to a different country, city, condo etc. because you prefer its rules to the ones you currently live under. Foot voting enables individuals to make a choice that actually matters to them, whereas voting in an election offers individuals only a miniscule chance of affecting the outcome.

I didn’t need to read Somin’s book to be persuaded of the potential value of foot voting. It would be difficult for an economist engaged in public policy not to be aware of those benefits. I also had the benefit of considering the issues involved many years ago when I read Robert Nozick’s famous book, Anarchy, State, and Utopia.

However, it is one thing to accept the potential benefits of foot voting as an ideal, and quite another to advocate removal of current obstacles to foot voting posed by migration regulations.

Somin suggest that the sovereignty argument – the view that the right to bar migrants is intrinsic to the existence of an independent nation state – has little support among political theorists, although it often arises in public discourse. Somin mentions Donald Trump and his southern border wall proposal in this context, but John Howard, a former Australian prime minister, advanced the argument just as strongly in 2001:

 “National Security … is also about having an uncompromising view about the fundamental right of this country to protect its borders. It's about this nation saying to the world we are a generous open-hearted people, taking more refugees on a per capita basis than any nation except Canada, we have a proud record of welcoming people from 140 different nations. But we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.

While national governments continue to exist, it would not be realistic to expect them to refrain from accepting responsibility for migration policy. However, that does not mean that it is beyond the realms of possibility for governments to adopt something more closely approaching an open borders policy. As Somin points out, sovereign nations existed for centuries without exercising a general power to bar peaceful migrants. Most governments made significant efforts to restrict entry only in the late 19th century.

The reason why the sovereignty argument seems persuasive to many people must be related to their perception that illegal or unauthorized migration has adverse consequences. They want immigration regulation enforced because they believe it serves a useful purpose.

Somin discusses in some detail various reasons that have been advanced for immigration restrictions. These include fear of terrorism and crime, possible reduction of wage levels, burdening of the welfare state, destruction of the environment, and the spread of harmful cultural values. He recognizes the validity of some objections to freedom of international migration, but suggests that “keyhole solutions” are available to meet negative side-effects of expanded migration. These keyhole solutions aim to target real problems, minimizing risks of adverse outcomes without imposing unnecessary restrictions on foot voting.

As in many other policy areas, carefully targeted regulation which minimizes adverse side-effects is clearly preferable to blanket bans and restrictions that are directed toward meeting political demands of anti-migrant nationalist groups. Somin recognizes that such groups are the main obstacle to international foot voting.

This brings me back to the sovereignty argument. It seems to me that anti-migrant nationalist groups had greater sway in Australian politics 20 years ago when significant numbers of people seeking refugee status were arriving by boat without prior approval. Under those circumstances it was relatively easy for the opponents of immigration to claim that “people smuggling” and “queue jumping” by refugees was likely to lead to huge social problems.

The government’s action to enforce regulation and discourage unauthorized arrivals seems to have enabled the public debate about immigration levels in Australia to become somewhat more civilized in recent years. It may also have reduced public disquiet about the relatively high migrant intake in recent years (prior to the Covid 19 pandemic).

The sovereignty argument is clearly opposed to recognition that people have a right to choose which country they will live in. Nevertheless, Australians seem generally to have become more relaxed in their attitudes toward high levels of immigration since the government stridently asserted sovereignty by taking effective action to discourage unauthorized arrivals.


The last couple of paragraphs have attracted some comment in response to a Facebook post by Boris Karpa: https://www.facebook.com/548209107/posts/10159829476419108/

The issue is whether there is any evidence to back up my assertion that Australians seem generally to have become more relaxed in their attitudes toward high levels of immigration since more effective action was taken to discourage unauthorized arrivals.

Survey evidence certainly suggests that immigration has gone off the radar as a major political issue in Australia over the last decade (Scanlan Foundation, Mapping Social Cohesion, 2020, p24). 

The total number of migrants has increased, but there has been substantial opposition associated with the "somewhat more civilized debate" that I referred to. It now seems possible for people to argue for a lower migrant intake on grounds of pressure on infrastructure, impacts on unskilled wage, and house prices etc. without being accused of racism, or lack of sympathy for refugees.

The refugee intake has not risen much over the last decade. Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be survey data on perceptions of whether the current refugee intake is too high or too low for long enough to assess whether attitudes have changed over the last decade. The Scanlan Foundation's report for 2019 suggests that in recent years opinion has been evenly balanced between those who say the intake is too small and those who say it is too large.

I think the Australian public would now be receptive to a larger refugee intake, provided people don’t arrive uninvited. However, that is just my personal view. I guess we will see whether or not I am right over the next year or so. 

Further comments are welcome.


Tuesday, August 3, 2021

What purpose is served by utopian thinking?


If your immediate response is that no good purpose is served by utopian thinking, it may be because you have the wrong kind of utopianism in mind. Perhaps what has come to mind is the description of an ideal society which could only exist if all humans were angelic, or perhaps it is the failure of some utopians to consider the human costs of attempting to achieve their visions.

Anyone who considers the nature and characteristics of an ideal society is engaged in utopian thinking. In my view, there is one particular type of utopian thinking that has contributed massively to advances in opportunities for individual human flourishing and has potential to continue to do so.

Before I make the case for that kind of utopian thinking, however, I need to discuss the rise of anti-utopianism.

The rise of anti-utopianism

The main threat to discussion of the characteristics of an ideal society seems to be coming from people who view such discussion as irrelevant to the world in which we live. These anti-utopians argue that it is a waste of time to consider whether public policy is consistent with principles that should apply in an ideal society. They see such ideals as irrelevant because outcomes are determined by power struggles.

Anti-utopians do not necessarily subscribe to the view that “might is right”. Their belief that outcomes are determined by power struggles may just lead them to argue that “right” is irrelevant. Their beliefs differ somewhat depending on whether they come from the conservative or progressive side of politics.

Anti-utopians who inhabit the conservative side of politics tend to focus on contests between nations. They argue that such contests are inevitable, and that victory depends primarily on the ferocity of the warriors. They sometimes recognize that religion and ideology have a role in motivating warriors by reinforcing nationalist sentiments. However, they tend to view notions of human rights and morality as “rationalizations of philosophers” that weaken the ferocity of warriors.

Anti-utopians who inhabit the progressive side of politics tend to focus on power struggles between different groups in society - different ethnic and religious groups, women and men, people with different sexual orientation, and so forth. People on the progressive side of politics have traditionally presented a view of an ideal society where everyone has equal opportunities as well as equal rights, but the anti-utopians engaged in identity politics seek affirmative action to be carried far beyond the provision of equal opportunities. Ethical principles are downplayed in the struggle of particular groups to advance their interests at the expense of others.

The arguments of the anti-utopians can be challenged within the framework of the power struggle paradigms they present. For example, conservative anti-utopians tend to overlook the extent to which people are motivated to contribute toward national defence by considerations such as protection of human rights. Progressive anti-utopians tend to overlook the potential for single-minded advocacy of their own interests to encourage other groups to retaliate.

The purpose of utopian thinking

 The best way to challenge the arguments of the anti-utopians is to present some defensible utopian views.

  1. Since human flourishing is an inherently self-directed activity undertaken by individuals, an ideal society must recognize that individuals have the right to flourish in the manner of their own choosing provided they do not interfere with the similar rights of others.
  2. The flourishing of individuals depends on their ability to follow personal values, visions and aspirations that make their lives meaningful. Some of the most basic personal values of individuals – including respect for the lives, property, and liberty of others - are widely shared by people throughout the world.  
  3. Progress toward an ideal society occurs when individuals have greater opportunities to meet their aspirations.

If you would like to see those points explained more fully, please read my recently published book “Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing”. The concept of utopia is only referred to a few times in the book but, as I have just realized, much of the thinking that went into the book is utopian thinking.

Utopian thinking is intrinsic to human flourishing.  

Monday, July 12, 2021

Can historical injustice be redressed?


This question arose as I was reading about the theme of this year’s NAIDOC week. NAIDOC week, held this year from 4-11 July, celebrates the history, culture, and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

The theme for NAIDOC week this year is “Heal Country”. The role of traditional management practices in protecting land from bushfires and droughts is mentioned specifically as part of the theme, but “country” encompasses all aspects of Indigenous culture.

The NAIDOC committee explains that “Healing Country means embracing First Nation’s cultural knowledge and understanding of Country as part of Australia's national heritage”. Australians, from all walks of life, have shown increasing concern to protect Indigenous cultural heritage. For example, when a mining company blew up an aboriginal sacred site in Western Australia last year, I found myself among the many people who felt that something significant to Australia’s national heritage had been destroyed.

The NAIDOC committee mention redressing historical injustice specifically:

“To Heal Country, we must properly work towards redressing historical injustice.”

However, that follows a statement implying that fundamental grievances would not vanish following “fair and equitable resolution” of “outstanding injustices”:

“In the European settlement of Australia, there were no treaties, no formal settlements, no compacts. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people therefore did not cede sovereignty to our land. It was taken from us. That will remain a continuing source of dispute.”

Working toward redressing historical injustice will not extinguish fundamental grievances. It would be na├»ve to expect that it would. Few humans find it easy to let go of their grievances, even when they accept that their personal interests would be better served by viewing historical events as “water under the bridge”.

Some readers may be thinking at this point that it is futile to attempt to redress historical injustices if such attempts cannot prevent those injustices from being viewed as an ongoing source of “grievances”. I don’t concur with that view. As I see it, the central issues of concern in redressing historical injustices are about justice, or fairness, rather than about attempting to assuage ongoing feelings of grievance felt by descendants of victims.

Historical injustice to Indigenous Australians stems from the failure of governments to recognize and protect their natural rights following colonization. It is arguable that current governments have an obligation to remedy adverse consequences flowing from the failures of their predecessors.

However, it is no easy matter to assess the extent to which opportunities currently available to Indigenous Australians have been adversely affected by historical injustices. A better understanding of history is a necessary step in the direction of any such assessment. It is pleasing to see the NAIDOC committee express the view:

“While we can’t change history, through telling the truth about our nation’s past we certainly can change the way history is viewed.”

The truth includes dispossession of land over much of the country, but it is difficult to generalize about what followed. Jim Belshaw, who knows more about history than I do, describes it recently as involving “uneasy co-existence, resistance and then survival and now, hopefully, recovery”. Even those broad stages might not be equally relevant in all parts of the country.

The truth also includes the existence of the “grave social and economic disadvantage”, referred to by the NAIDOC committee, but that cannot be wholly attributed to historical injustices.

As discussed in my recent book, Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing, there has been massive growth of opportunities for human flourishing over the last 200 years in Western liberal democracies, including Australia. I suggest in the Preface:

“Those of us who have the good fortune to live in Western liberal democracies have opportunities that we might crave if we lived elsewhere in the world”.

I think that applies to the Indigenous people of Australia as well as to other Australians. The opportunities we all currently enjoy should be sufficient to offset any ongoing social and economic consequences of injustices suffered by our ancestors.

So, how can I explain the relatively poor social and economic outcomes of many Indigenous people in Australia? It seems to me that anyone seeking the truth about this should consider the adverse consequences over the last 50 years of extending unemployment benefits and other welfare support to Aboriginal communities in remote areas. Ongoing social and economic disadvantage may be strongly linked to well-meaning efforts during the 1970s to remove discrimination against Indigenous people in access to government welfare support.

That is not a novel idea, but governments have found it difficult to implement welfare policies with more appropriate incentives. There has been little progress toward “closing the gap” in social and economic outcomes. Hopefully, greater involvement of local communities will result in better outcomes in future.

In my view, as discussed in Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing, the flourishing of humans is intrinsically a matter for individual self-direction, rather than something to fostered by human development experts, or social planners. Social and economic context influence opportunities available, but the capacity of individuals for wise and well-informed self-direction is of central importance to their own flourishing. It is inspiring to see increasing numbers of Indigenous Australians achieving outstanding success in their chosen fields, despite injustices suffered by their ancestors and the limited opportunities currently available in their local communities.