Thursday, January 13, 2011

Is collective pursuit of happiness taking us to a 'brave new world'?

‘O, wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in't’
William Shakespeare, ‘The Tempest’ (V, i)

Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ (1932) is about the potential conflict between human happiness as a goal of society and traditional virtues such as nobility and heroism.

Mustapha Mond, a controller of the new world, explains to John Savage that there is no longer any need for civilized man to bear anything seriously unpleasant. As the discussion continues, Mond claims that civilization has absolutely no need of nobility or heroism:
‘In a properly organized society like ours, nobody has any opportunities for being noble or heroic. Conditions have got to be thoroughly unstable before the occasion can arise ... And if ever, by some unlucky chance, anything unpleasant should somehow happen, why, there's always soma to give you a holiday from the facts. And there's always soma to calm your anger, to reconcile you to your enemies, to make you patient and long-suffering. In the past you could only accomplish these things by making a great effort and after years of hard moral training. Now, you swallow two or three half-gramme tablets, and there you are’ (Chapter 17).

The discussion ends with Savage rejecting this new world in which happiness is paramount:
‘But I don't want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.’
‘In fact,’ said Mustapha Mond, ‘you're claiming the right to be unhappy.’
‘All right then,’ said the Savage defiantly, ‘I'm claiming the right to be unhappy'.
'Not to mention the right to grow old and ugly and impotent; the right to have syphilis and cancer; the right to have too little to eat; the right to be lousy; the right to live in constant apprehension of what may happen to-morrow; the right to catch typhoid; the right to be tortured by unspeakable pains of every kind.’ There was a long silence.
‘I claim them all,’ said the Savage at last.
Mustapha Mond shrugged his shoulders. ‘You're welcome,’ he said.

Some of the rights that Savage claims do not seem to me to be an essential part of the rich tapestry of human life. What he must be saying is that he would prefer to live in our imperfect world rather than a de-humanizing world in which happiness is paramount.

Are we heading towards Huxley’s brave new world? If so, we clearly still have some way to go before we get there. There are still a lot of noble and heroic people around, as is particularly evident at times of natural disasters such as the current floods in Queensland. There doesn’t seem to be much risk of human reproduction and child rearing being taken over by government, even though much of the technology needed to do this already exists. Sexual promiscuity has increased, but there doesn’t seem to be much risk that social mores will develop in directions opposed to monogamous relationships. The risk of totalitarianism seems to have receded.

At the same time, however, while we may never have soma, there is already widespread use of pharmaceutical products to influence emotions. Entertainment involving virtual reality is popular and technology seems to be advancing rapidly in this area. Perhaps the ‘feelies’ will soon be coming to a theatre near you.

I see no grounds to object to individuals using new technologies in pursuit of their own happiness if that is their choice. The question is whether culture and public policies in pursuit of happiness are moving systematically in directions that dehumanize people.

That question seems to be a lot like the question I started with. I hope I am not going to become locked into some kind of Groundhog’s day where I keep asking the same question over and over. If I am going to make progress, the next step might be to consider what it means to dehumanize a person. Perhaps it has to do with taking away their responsibility for making choices and bearing the consequences their actions.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Where does the greatest challenge to liberty come from?

‘If respect for individual rights were to be shown to lead, not to order and prosperity, but to chaos, the destruction of civilization, and famine, few would uphold such alleged rights, and those who did would certainly be held the enemies of mankind. Those who can see order only when there is a conscious ordering mind - socialists, totalitarians, monarchical absolutists, and the like - fear just such consequences from individual rights. But if it can be shown that a multitude of individuals exercising a set of “compossible” rights ... [rights that can exercised at the same time without entailing conflicts] ... generates, not chaos, but order, cooperation, and the progressive advance of human well-being, then respect for the dignity and autonomy of the individual would be seen to be not only compatible with, but even a necessary precondition for, the achievement of social coordination, prosperity, and high civilization’ - Tom G Palmer, ‘The literature of liberty’.

I wish I had written that paragraph. It captures a lot about the relationship between freedom and flourishing that I have been writing about on this blog for the last couple of years. My personal conviction is that individual liberty is necessary to individual flourishing because individual flourishing is an inherently self-directed process. While I seek to persuade others to adopt that view, I recognize that the course of public policy depends much more strongly on public perceptions of the consequences of alternative courses of action.

Much of the discussion in my blog has been about the consequences of freedom or lack of it. I discussed the strong positive relationship between freedom and objective measures of well-being (income, longevity etc) in an early post. The general conclusion from my posts discussing measurement of subjective well-being is that claims sometimes made that the findings of happiness research conflict with these conclusions are simply wrong. Not only do people in countries with relatively high levels of freedom have higher material living standards, they also tend to have higher life satisfaction.

However, even though the existence of a positive general relationship between liberty and well-being now seems to be disputed less frequently, freedom is still under challenge from several different directions. First, there is a challenge to economic freedom associated with the global financial crisis (GFC). The GFC has raised important economic issues about the role of monetary and fiscal policy, the effects on the financial system of the failure of large financial institutions and the effects of different regulatory regimes on behaviour of large financial institutions. Economists will probably still be debating some of these issues in 50 years time, but at this stage it looks to me as though the extent of additional regulation likely to be seriously contemplated will be relatively minor and confined to the financial sector. Not many people are suggesting the nationalization of industry and the introduction of Soviet-style economic planning to prevent future financial crises.

The second challenge to freedom is associated with action to deal with alleged externalities, particularly global emissions of greenhouse gases. Some restriction of freedom is of course justified to discourage activities that impinge on the rights of others. Some of the ways the ‘problem’ of greenhouse gas emissions is being tackled in many countries, however, involve greater than necessary restrictions of economic freedom. This stems from rent-seeking activities of industries, including those favouring particular technologies. The challenge is serious, but probably easier to deal with than previous challenges that many countries have dealt with successfully, including, for example, overcoming opposition to reductions in barriers to international trade.

The third challenge to freedom seems to me to be more fundamental and more serious. It stems from the collectivist idea that governments are responsible for the happiness of citizens, rather than for protecting their rights - including their right to pursue happiness as they think fit. Many people have come to expect governments to act as guardians of their well-being, not only giving financial support in times of need, but also protecting them from making bad decisions. In relying on governments to perform such a role they infringe the liberty of other people who do not want or need such protection.

This challenge to individual liberty seems to come mainly from people who do not mean anyone any harm – people who live among us who want us all to have happier lives. As I write this I am conscious that at times I have actually supported government regulations to protect people from making bad decisions that might adversely affect their well-being. You might have similar memories. Sometimes we may have had reason to be concerned that if people were not compelled to act in what we perceived as ‘their interests’ they would end up imposing a burden on the welfare system or on private charity. That just underlines the point I am making - the greatest challenge to individual liberty comes from people who do not mean anyone any harm.

In modern democracies the choice between liberty and paternalism rests ultimately in the hands of our fellow citizens. The course of public dialogue about such matters turns most crucially on public perceptions of the consequences for human well-being of the policy choices that governments are making. While each public policy decision to restrict liberty and relieve individuals of responsibility for their own actions may seem relatively benign when considered in isolation, that doesn’t mean that the cumulative impact of many such decisions will be benign.

This raises the question I will consider in the next post:
Is collective pursuit of happiness taking us in directions that are relatively benign, or is it taking us to a ‘Brave New World’?

Sunday, January 9, 2011

How should the history of the industrial revolution influence economic reforms?

While recently reading Deirdre McCloskey’s ‘Bourgeois Dignity’, Joel Mokyr’s ‘The Enlightened Economy’ and Eric Jones, ‘Locating the Industrial Revolution’ (discussed previously here, here and here) I was pleased to find that these authors have been able to make a strong case that the industrial revolution can be best explained by modern economic growth theory that emphasises the importance of technological progress, innovation and productivity improvement. It is reassuring that this conceptual framework fits the facts relating to the history of the last few hundred years as well as comparative growth experiences of different countries in more recent times.

In their explanations, however, McCloskey and Mokyr move substantially away from the view that because ‘incentives matter’ the best explanation for everything must be found in changes in economic incentives. This does not necessarily involve moving away from a utility maximization framework (although McCloskey does). There is no reason why a Max U framework cannot recognize that inventors may be strongly influenced by the pleasure of discovery and by recognition of their peers; innovators may obtain pleasure from seeing scientific knowledge being put to good use; and everyone may gain some satisfaction from acting in accordance with their own perceptions of their identity, whether that involves behaving like a scientist, a gentleman, a tycoon, a rent-seeker or a mendicant.

In explaining the industrial revolution Mokyr and McCloskey emphasize the importance of beliefs and ideologies – in particular those associated with the Enlightenment. Three inter-related strands of beliefs and ideologies connected to the Enlightenment seem to be particularly relevant:

  • First, Mokyr argues that the influence of the Baconian program - with its emphasis on research to solve practical problems - extended beyond formal scientific research. He makes a strong case that the ‘legitimization of systematic experiment carried over to the realm of technology’, including through the proliferation of provincial ‘philosophical’ societies discussing practical and technical issues.

  • Second, as emphasized by McCloskey, there was a bourgeois revaluation – a change in attitudes toward the middle classes, markets and innovation. Mokyr links this to norms relating to politeness and gentlemanly behaviour, and an apparent improvement in social trust which reduced transactions costs.

  • Third, there is the ideological change stemming directly from the success of the Scottish Enlightenment and, in particular, from publication of ‘Wealth of Nations’ by Adam Smith. As Mokyr writes: ‘The Enlightenment in its different manifestations advocated a set of new institutions that cleared up centuries of mercantilist policies, regulations and social controls, whose objective had been primarily to redistribute resources to politically connected groups and to enhance the interests of the Crown (the best connected group of all). The mercantilist world was unsuitable to a brave new world of continued technological progress driven by free markets, innovative entrepreneurship, and an internationally collaborative effort to advance technology’ (p. 486).

In reviewing Eric Jones book I asked myself whether the industrial revolution could be attributed to economic freedom and suggested that his book had reinforced my view that it could be (even though Jones does not argue strongly in favour of that view). My subsequent reading has not led me to change that view but it suggests that economists interested in economic growth should give more attention to beliefs and ideologies that lie behind the formal rules of the game and their incentive structures.

In writing this I am reminded of comments made by Douglass North in his Nobel Prize lecture in 1993:
‘It is the admixture of formal rules, informal norms, and enforcement characteristics that shapes economic performance. While the rules may be changed overnight, the informal norms usually change only gradually. Since it is the norms that provide "legitimacy" to a set of rules, revolutionary change is never as revolutionary as its supporters desire and performance will be different than anticipated. And economies that adopt the formal rules of another economy will have very different performance characteristics than the first economy because of different informal norms and enforcement. The implication is that transferring the formal political and economic rules of successful western market economies to Third World and eastern European economies is not a sufficient condition for good economic performance. Privatization is not a panacea for solving poor economic performance’.

The fact that privatization by itself is no panacea does not stop me from arguing in favour of it, but I take the point that economic freedom cannot be sustained unless prevailing beliefs, ideologies and norms are supportive.

I should have mentioned the growing importance of freedom of speech as a factor which would have contributed to the various strands of Enlightenment thinking noted above. This enabled the growth of social networks and civil society as discussed by Mokyr (p. 387). The line of argument in Timothy Ferris's book, 'The Science Liberty', (which I discussed here) is also relevant in this context.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Was the industrial revolution mainly about the growth of manufacturing industry?

Some readers may think this question is like asking whether the Pope is a Catholic. The question is worth considering, however, because it raises some fairly common misconceptions about the industrial revolution (some of which I held until recently).

My main reason for reading about the industrial revolution has to do with my interest in human flourishing. The industrial revolution led to a massive, unprecedented and ongoing improvement in living standards, beginning in Britain and then spreading to other parts of the world. From that perspective, the industrial revolution tends to be associated with the advent of sustained economic growth.

The Enlightened Economy: An Economic History of Britain 1700-1850 (The New Economic History of Britain seri)However, Joel Mokyr suggests that the best available estimates indicate that growth in per capita income in Britain did not accelerate until the decades after 1830 - well after the beginning of the industrial revolution (‘The Enlightened Economy’, p 256). That makes sense if we define the industrial revolution in terms of the technological innovations which brought about a transformation in the way goods and services were produced in the British economy between 1760 and 1830. One reason why these innovations were not immediately reflected in higher per capita income growth was the rapid growth of population – the English population increased from 6.1 million to 13.1 million between 1760 and 1830 (p.257). Another reason was the initial concentration of major innovations in a relatively small, though rapidly growing, part of the British economy (p. 82).

Information from a table presented by Deirdre McCloskey is graphed below in order to provide some perspective on the contribution of different industries to productivity growth in Britain over the period from 1780 to 1860 (‘Bourgeois Dignity’, p.219).

Figure 1 shows the relatively rapid growth of productivity in some manufacturing industries as well as canals and railways.
Figure 2 shows that despite the more modest productivity growth rate in agriculture, the relatively large size of this sector means that over the period considered its contribution to overall productivity growth was comparable to that of the manufacturing industries with more rapid productivity growth.

So, was the industrial revolution mainly about the growth of manufacturing industry? Perhaps, if we define the industrial revolution so narrowly that it has to refer to the growth of manufacturing industry. If we do that, however, we need another term to describe the processes leading to the advent of economic growth in Britain. Joel Mokyr’s term, the industrial enlightenment, aptly describes the broader processes through which a social climate favourable to innovation was made possible by growing recognition that material progress could be achieved through advances in science and technology.

Mokyr puts the various phases of the industrial revolution in context as follows:
‘The Industrial Revolution was above all a beginning. It cannot be judged on its own grounds without considering what it led to. What is truly significant is not the wave of great inventions made in the years between 1765 and 1800, but the fact that this process did not subsequently fizzle out. Some societies, in Europe and Asia, had witnessed previous clusters of macroinventions, leading to substantial economic changes. ... The “classical” Industrial Revolution in the eighteenth was not an altogether novel phenomenon. In contrast, the second and third waves in the nineteenth century, which made continuous technological progress the centrepiece of sustainable economic growth, were something never before witnessed and that constituted a sea change in economic history like few other phenomena ever had’ (p. 83-4).

I would like to draw attention to Deirdre McCloskey's comment below.

I would also like to draw attention to this video by Hans Rosling on You Tube.