Much Ado about Happiness
March 26, 2011
Mark D. White
Carl Bialik at The Wall Street Journal has an article in today's edition and a blog post from last night, both very evenhanded, about the attempts by governments to measure the happiness of its citizenry, and the skepticism of some regarding the efficacy of this.
For a critical look at the theory behind happiness studies, I would recommend Dan Hausman's article "Hedonism and Welfare Economics" from Economics and Philosophy, 26(3), November 2010.
I have two significant problems with governments purporting to measure happiness (which are similar to my problems with libertarian paternalism), which I hope to explore at length elsewhere.
1) Happiness is too vague a notion, and multifaceted a concept, to be measured with any degree of accuracy, and any instrument that is developed to do so will inevitably reflect the policy preferences of the parties doing the measuring.
2) It is grossly inappropriate for governments to base any policy decisions on what it thinks makes its people "happy" (or wealthy or wise), when what they should do is enable (and respect) the widest range of choices the people can make in their own interests (to whatever extent these interests include happiness). It is not up to the government to decide that we should be "happy" (especially according to some artificial and contrived definition), nor to take measures to get us there.
(See also this older post of mine at Psychology Today, making a similar point about happiness, but in the context of personal happiness and positive psychology rather than political theory.)
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