Well-being

Fleurbaey and Leppanen on expanding social welfare analysis to other species (in Journal of Bioeconomics)

J of bioeconomicsBy Mark D. White

There are ambitious papers and then there are ambitious papers. In the latest issue of the Journal of Bioeconomics (23/3, October 2021) is "Toward a Theory of Ecosystem Well-Being" by Marc Fleurbaey (Paris School of Economics) and Christy Leppanen (University of Tennessee), an open-access article that rejects the current human-centered (or anthropocentric) approach to welfare economics and environmental economics, and proposes, in its place, a more inclusive measure of social welfare that includes all living organisms on Earth, effectively bringing animal ethics into the domain of environmental economics.

Social welfare analysis is therefore in urgent need to shed its century-old anthropocentrism. This paper examines the scope of the reform that this move would require. The key question is whether the concepts of social welfare analysis need a complete overhaul, or can be extended. Indeed, the main task of social welfare analysis is to trade-off the interests of various members of the population under consideration. Comparing how well-off different human beings are is actually not so simple (Fleurbaey & Hammond, 2004), and has led many economists to despair that it was even possible to do on a rational, non-arbitrary basis. Different human beings differ in their abilities, needs, and goals in life, so that comparing their situations in terms of success or advantage is far from obvious. But various methods have been designed to perform that delicate task. (p. 258)

One interesting aspect of their project that stands out to me is their acknowledgment of the difficulty of measuring and comparing welfare within the human species, which they use to argue that incorporating more species into the picture does not add much more complexity.

Comparing individuals from different species is admittedly more difficult because differences in abilities, needs and goals are even larger and more profound. But it remains to be seen within this context whether inter-species comparisons are of a different nature than intra-species comparisons. This is the question we study in this paper. To do so, we review the main approaches to interpersonal comparisons that have been imagined in welfare analysis for human beings, and examine if they can be extended to comparisons across species as well. (pp. 258-59)

Fleurbaey and Leppanen preview the rest of the paper at the end of their introduction:

The next section introduces to the structure of the type of social welfare analysis that is the workhorse of this paper. In particular, it explains why in this paper we focus on the problem of well-being comparisons among individual organisms from different species and largely leave aside the problem of the evaluation of the distribution of well-being as well as questions of population sizes. In Sects. 2–5, we examine four approaches to the measurement of advantage or well-being: command over resources, hedonic well-being, objective list methods, and preference-based methods. These are the prominent methods in current social welfare analysis (Adler, 2019; Adler & Fleurbaey, 2016). In Sect. 6, we scrutinize the important issue of rescaling the measures of functionings for species with different abilities, such as longevity. This problem raises an apparent dilemma which is quite important, and echoes similar difficulties appearing among human beings with unequal capacities or with disabilities. (pp. 260-61)


New paper for the Mercatus Center on the problems with happiness policy

Mark D. White

Smiley wallpaperJust a brief note to point interested readers toward my first paper for the Mercatus Center, "The Problems with Measuring and Using Happiness for Policy Purposes."

For more detail on happiness, other measures of well-being or welfare, and alternative approaches to policymaking, see my book The Illusion of Well-Being: Economic Policymaking Based on Respect and Responsiveness.


There Is Little Happiness to Be Found in Happiness-Based Policy

Mark D. White

IllusionGovernments around the world are starting to measure happiness (or subjective well-being) with the goal of a more humane process of policymaking. According to supporters, happiness-based policy will focus governments’ attention on what really matters to their citizens, their essential well-being, better than economic measures such as gross domestic product or national income that are too far removed from the day-to-day concerns of the people.

While the intentions may be good, the benefits of happiness-based policy are illusory at best and counterproductive at worst. There are fundamental problems with defining and measuring happiness, as well as implementing policy based on it, that prevent it from being a viable alternative to traditional policymaking based on GDP and other economic statistics.

First, the term “happiness” is notoriously difficult to define. Philosophers have tried to do this for centuries, identifying and detailing many types of happiness but arriving at no universal definition. Songwriters, poets, and novelists have done a better job describing happiness in all of its nuance and glory, but this does not provide a solid basis for measurement. For the most part, psychologists and economists who try to measure happiness do not worry about definitions, satisfied that “everyone knows what is,” but with no guarantee that everyone knows it to the be the same thing. Happiness is simply too vague a concept to define precisely enough for measurement without excluding what many people consider happiness to be to them.

Second, there is no straightforward way to translate an essentially qualitative and subjective feeling such as happiness into quantitative data. Most happiness surveys consist of questions about the respondents’ current state of happiness or satisfaction with their lives, which they answer on a numerical scale with the units labeled “very unhappy” to “very happy” or “the least satisfied I can imagine” to “the most satisfied I can imagine.” Even if the definition of happiness were clear, these labels are not. For instance, how a person interprets these labels depends critically on the experiences and circumstances of his or her life. A wealthy and successful CEO may feel she has not lived up to her potential, while the janitor in her building may be very pleased with his lot in life. Human beings have the ability to adapt to their life circumstances, which explains why people living in deplorable conditions may nonetheless report high levels of happiness and well-being. This also implies that the steps on the happiness scale are inherently subjective, nonuniform, and incomparable, rendering them unable to support the mathematical processes researchers need to perform on them to provide information for policymakers.

Finally, even if there were no problems with definition or measurement, happiness-based policymaking raises numerous ethical and political issues when it comes to implementation. For example, would the government target a growth rate for happiness? This is problematic in light of the “hedonic treadmill,” by which we work hard to achieve more happiness, only to adapt to that level and strive for more. In the end, we work more and more and end up with little increase in happiness, and the same would likely hold for official happiness “stimulus.” Another concern is the possibility of significant inequality of happiness: due to adaptation, the underprivileged may report levels of happiness that mask their circumstances while the affluent express dissatisfaction and boredom. Would we then redistribute resources from the poor who seem happy to the rich who don’t? Finally, people often give up some happiness now in exchange for more later, such as when they go to school or on a diet. How would government measures focused on the now take account of investments in the future? All of these are questions that policymakers will be forced to struggle with if they choose to base policy on measures of happiness.

Given the inherently vague, qualitative, and subjective nature of happiness, it is impossible to define and measure it well enough for the purpose of policymaking. This is not a simple matter of refining statistical techniques; the problems with happiness measurement are more fundamental than that.

There is, however, a better way. Instead of trying to determine what happiness is and how to measure it, the government can trust individuals to make choices in pursuit of their own interests. Instead of trying to boost the happiness of those doing fairly well, the government can devote its resources to alleviating the suffering of the poor. Instead of targeting the general level of happiness based on arbitrary definitions and inaccurate measurement, the government can address specific problems that their citizens tell them need to be addressed.

In short, the government does not need to define, measure, and evaluate happiness in order to find problems to address. There are enough problems facing the country that are readily apparent. Liberals, conservatives, and libertarians may disagree about the scale and scope of what government should do, but I think they would all agree that the government should deal with the problems at hand rather than invent new ways to find them. In the end, that may be the best way to make people happy.


For more, see my latest book, The Illusion of Well-Being: Economic Policymaking Based on Respect and Responsiveness (pictured above), as well as a longer two-part treatment of the above at the LSE Politics and Policy blog (here and here).


The arbitrariness of well-being measures: family mealtimes and Facebook enrollment

Mark D. White

Family eatingLast week I submitted the manuscript for a book that argues that all measures of well-being or happiness are arbitrary and reflect the judgments of those who designed them, rather than the interests of the people whose well-being is ostensibly measured. (A precis of sorts for the book appeared in this article, published late last year.)

Last week The Telegraph provided a perfect (if a bit outrageous) example of this in an article titled "Family mealtimes to become official measure of national ‘happiness’." The article begins:

Eating meals together as a family is to be officially recognised as a mark of happiness as part of David Cameron’s plan to measure Britain’s national “well-being”.

For the first time, the number British families who maintain traditional mealtimes is to be monitored, under plans to expand the so-called “happiness” index.

Children as young as 10 are to be asked how often they argue with their parents and whether they are being bullied at school, including Internet bullying.

They will also be asked to share how they feel about their personal appearance, whether they can confide in their parents about problems and whether they have signed up to social networking sites such as Facebook.

Before I get to the broader issue here, let me say that these "elements of happiness" are not uncontroversial. Family mealtimes are usually good, sure, but being signed up to Facebook? The latter has been linked with some measures of happiness, and some have even questioned the mental health of people who aren't on Facebook. But this is hardly a settled matter, and it seems hasty (at best) to suggesting using Facebook enrollment in official government statistics meant to guide policymaking. (I hope you can appreciate the self-restraint required in keeping this paragraph relatively snark-free.)

There are good arguments for composite indices of well-being (such as the United Nations' Human Development Index), but this latest effort by the British government seems more like a kitchen sink approach to measuring well-being. Are public policy decisions seriously going to be taken based on Facebook enrollment and family mealtime frequency? Do British policymakers actually think this will capture the well-being of their citizens accurately enough to guide policy decisions in their interests?

Clearly somebody feels that these aspects of life are important to the well-being of the British people. This is what philosopher Sissela Bok meant when, in her book Exploring Happiness, she compared happiness measures to Rorschach tests: they often reveal more about those who designed them then about those whose happiness they are used to assess. The question is whether any haphazard collection of statistics about daily life—even those shown to have some connection to some measure of well-being—can hope to accurately capture the interests of any one person, much less a nation's entire population, in order to ground responsible and effective policy decisions.

In the article linked above and my forthcoming book, I argue that the answer is a resounding no. A person's interests are complex, multifaceted, and subjective, and they're combined and balanced in ever-shifting ways by his or her judgment before they issue in a choice that reflects them. No statistical measure of happiness or well-being can even begin to approach people's true interests, and governments should stop pretending they can. This practice is ineffective, wasteful, and—more important—disrespectful to their citizens' right to live their lives as they wish (consistent with all other dong the same).

Instead, I argue that governments should focus on restructing laws and other institutions to enable the maximal freedom possibe for people to pursue their own interests, while focusing on addressing problems that present themselves—minimizing suffering where it exists rather than trying to maximize well-being according to measures they invent.