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!

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