Happiness and Coercion

I’ve been very loosly following recent discussions about happiness research and public policy implications. By far, the best observations I’ve seen have come from Will Wilkinson, who has a new paper out that everyone interested in the subject should read.

There’s also a new Cato Unbound discussion on the subject in which Wilkinson will participate (he’s also the managing editor).

It’s that discusson that moved me to post.

In today’s reaction essay, psychology professor Barry Schwartz defends the idea that “societies” should pursue happiness. The essay is mostly a game of semantics that doesn’t really address the real challenges made in the lead essay.

But, what really annoyed me was this bit defending the thesis of Richard Layard:

Layard’s argument, in essence, is that one of the things nations do is pursue policies. Given that nations pursue policies, they ought to be pursuing policies that promote the welfare of their citizens.

Hidden behind the harmless-looking phrase “pursue policies” is the fact that governments do things with force. What he’s saying is that’s it’s a given that governments coerce people to do things against their will, so we might as well have a lot more of it in a direction that he likes. That doesn’t follow from anything that’s “given” at all.

If he wants to argue that the best way to help people to be happier is to point guns at them (or threaten to) and take away their hard-earned wealth and freedom to make choices for themselves, then he should have the honesty to say so directly. I suspect he’d find that sort of direct claim much harder to defend than his dancing around the issue. If he isn’t talking about naked coercion, then he shouldn’t be talking about nations “pursu[ing] policies”. Nobody (that I know of) objects to private groups promoting happiness through voluntary projects.

It seems to me that this happiness research is a lot like Barack Obama. It doesn’t really say anything definitive, and everyone sees what they want to see in it.

Schwartz also repeats the suggestion that research indicates that “Increased affluence is in many ways decreasing welfare.”

If he believes this, then I hereby offer him the opportunity to relieve himself of some of his burden (let’s say $10,000), by sending it to me. Since he seems to think it would help, he could pay some thug to force him to send it to me.

He thinks the extra affluence is making him less happy, and I think it would make me more happy.

It’s a win-win!

Consumption or Production?

Here’s something else I’ve been meaning to pass along.

Last week Don Boudreaux, at Cafe Hayek wrote a post with a brilliant thought experiment to show how foolish the mercantilist ideas on trade are:

The poisonous core of mercantilism, you see, features the silly belief that a nation’s wealth lies in what its people produce rather than in what its people consume.

Mercantilism also includes the myth that protecting domestic producers of high-value consumption items makes the domestic economy thrive. Again I ask: suppose a generous Namibian scientist discovers a very inexpensive way to combine table salt, tap water, and ordinary bread crumbs into a medicine that cures — and inoculates against — cancer, tuberculosis, and erectile disfunction. This generous scientist gives his knowledge away for free, publishing it on the web so that ordinary men and women throughout the world can, at virtually zero cost, protect themselves from these diseases.

Would Americans be made worse off as a result? Treating these diseases today is big business. People pay lots of money for treatment by highly skilled specialists, as well as lots of money for medicines made by other highly skilled specialists. Does America’s wealth lie in the production of these high-valued outputs? Or does America’s wealth lie in Americans’ ability to consume these high-valued outputs — in our ability to take steps to cure ourselves of these ailments?

It’s true that, given the current scarcity of resources and knowledge that enable us to cure ourselves of these awful diseases, the prices that we willingly pay for access to high-quality treatments are high. Hence, the remuneration of the specialists who provide these treatments is generally high. But it is a mistake to assume that we are made wealthy by the existence of such high-paying jobs — for such an
assumption implies that the greater the number of obstacles that we face, the wealthier we become.

If Prof. Morici’s mercantilist logic were correct, then America would become a poorer place if an inexpensive sure-cure for cancer, tuberculosis, and erectile dysfunction were discovered and information about it widely distributed. But clearly we would be wealthier, not poorer, if such a wonderful discovery were made — just as we are wealthier the greater is our access to low-cost goods and services produced wherever, even abroad.

So, what do we want? Do we want to deny ourselves more cost-effective solutions to problems that are produced abroad in order to protect less cost-effective domestic solution-providers?

To me, the question answers itself. We should avail ourselves of the best value that we can get to solve our problems. Yes, some people will have to adjust when foreign competition makes their jobs unnecessary, or less valuable. But, we’ll all be better off in the aggregate, and even those who have to change will also benefit from all of the better options they have because of free-trade in other industries.

I know that there are people who take the other position, but I really want to believe that they are just unfamiliar with the arguments for free-trade, rather than incredibly stupid or evil.

Libertarian Paradox?

For a while now, I’ve been meaning to comment on Tyler  Cowen‘s recent contribution  to the Cato  Unbound discussion (Libertarianism: Past and Prospects, a discussion  prompted by a lead  essay by Brian Doherty, author of the recently published Radicals  for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American  Libertarian Movement). I recommend that you read the whole  discussion. In fact, I recommend that you regularly read Cato Unbound.

Cowen is a brilliant guy who knows a lot more than I do about many  things. I appreciate his unconventional, contrarian takes on a lot of  issues. Perhaps I, and others, are over-reacting to his provocative  points, but I do think that what he has said deserves criticism.

Basically, his main point seems to be that libertarian influences have improved government (by making the more outrageous economic  interventions out-of-bounds) and have helped to make many of us more  wealthy. Paradoxically, he says, these changes make people demand more  from government, not less, and further libertarian advances become more  difficult.

So far, so good.

But, then he seems to argue that libertarians should stop resisting big government and accept that growing wealth and growing government is a package deal. He repeats this, but never makes a real argument that it is so.

The closest he comes is this:

…No, we should not be extreme fatalists, but the welfare state is here  to stay, whether we like it or not.

The bottom line is this: human beings have deeply rooted impulses to take newly acquired wealth and spend some of it on more government and  especially on transfer payments. Let’s deal with that.

It’s hard to argue that this isn’t true, but it’s easy to argue that it  isn’t an eternal truth that will always control the institutions of  government.

I think that human beings have deeply rooted impulses to control the communication of others, but we’ve managed to spread respect for the freedoms protected by the First Amendment enough that we have a consensus that it’s valuable to protect speech, even if we don’t like the speech. I don’t see why economic liberty needs to be different.

Cowen may be right that we shouldn’t be disappointed if we don’t make  dramatic progress in the near future, but I think it’s bad advice (if  that’s what this is) that we should stop advocating it.

Cowen then goes on to list some potential global issues that may require big government to address. Whether he’s right about these things or not, it doesn’t actually support his arguments against resisting the growing  welfare state.

There has been quite a bit of libertarian reaction to the essay,  including Arnold Kling and Bryan Caplan and Tom  G. Palmer. But, the best reaction I’ve seen so far comes from Gene  Healy. Among other good points, he writes:

If the welfare state impedes human flourishing, if the drug war is an abomination, if the New Deal constitutional revolution was an intellectual fraud from top to bottom, then libertarians ought to say those things. Because they’re true. Because they’re not said often enough. And because describing the world accurately is the first step towards changing it.

What sort of changes are possible? Who knows? But even if you think the  best we can hope for is a less-awful welfare state, don’t underestimate  the clarifying effect of bold, uncompromising ideas. Such ideas can help  make positive, incremental reforms possible. The welfare reform we got  in 1996 — generally a good thing — looks more like Robert  Rector’s program than Charles Murray’s “end welfare” thought  experiment in Losing  Ground. But would we have gotten that sort of reform if Murray  had decided that imagining a world without welfare wasn’t worth the effort?