Monday, 7 July 2014

Happy, Pappy?

In a book brimming with interesting findings and lines of research, Professor Richard Layard of the London School of Economics sadly offers a travesty of the utilitarian case for happiness. His book, Happiness: Lessons from a New Science, is appallingly tendentious, especially on philosophy. I don't recall when I last read a case for anything that so poorly represented opposing arguments. The strange thing is that I still do not regret reading it, even though, ironically, it was far from a happy experience. I will deal with an assortment of nit-picks before I get to my substantial criticisms, which concern philosophy.

Picked Nits
The case for happiness which Layard presents is insufficiently dynamic. He argues that more wealth is unlikely to make the happiest among us substantially happier, and that "we" should therefore focus our energies not on production but on softer ends, such as leisure. However, if maximal happiness is truly the goal (which I will contend below that it is not), it would make a lot more sense to move quickly now to take away a lot of unhappiness and thereby create a much-improved position into which our descendants are born. For instance, on the issue of immigration, Layard opines against it on the grounds that stable communities promote happiness. But if anyone were free to move anywhere, communities would stabilize over time, just like they stabilize within closed countries. Even if that took a couple of generations, I don't see how anyone could doubt that the "happiness" gain to the immigrants today and their descendants is vast enough to defeat any other arrangement. Similar cases could be made that more work now can help produce innovations in health care which reduce misery tomorrow.

Layard is of the respectable opinion that the marginal utility of the millionth dollar of wealth is lower for a millionaire than the marginal utility of the first dollar is for someone of less wealth, but talks about it as though it were a well-established truth. In fact, his case is rather weak. On page 51, he writes that survey research "confirms [his] belief" and for a big part of his evidence refers his readers to an online annexe on the measurability of happiness, but when I go there to look, the relevant section (p. 17) is blank, but for an annoying note reading "[TO COME.]", this on a page which was last updated in 2005. Busy decade? As I have argued before, why can it not be that a millionaire decides to try to get rich simply because the millionth dollar gives more happiness to him than even the first dollar does to persons of more conventional wealth? We are nowhere near being able to compare "happiness" across individuals and utility is yet more difficult (see below for a distinction between happiness and utility).

I am left with the impression that Layard contradicts himself when he laments the "commonplace" maximizer's fallacy of focusing too much on tomorrow while agreeing with behavioural economists in their concerns that people are insufficiently forward-looking. Are these just different groups of people? Who has the right priorities? Elsewhere, in a hapless lapse of judgement, he refers to the existence of positional goods and fashions as indicative that individuals' preferences change (p. 139), when every economist should know the ease with which one can have stable preferences which incorporate social concerns: e.g. a utility function can be written which gives utility only when consumption of some good is above average.

Before proceeding to more substantial criticisms, it is worth pointing out that those respectful of public choice will be annoyed by Layard's assertions, whenever he talks about policies with which he is in agreement, that they are in place because thoughtful politicians have realized that they increase happiness. Rather, it may be that they are in place because politicians have gained from this legislation. If they should happen to be socially valuable, that is an incidental by-product of the politicians' self-interest (of course, this is not to say that most policies are wrong-headed, only that Layard's writing will seem naïve to students of public choice).

More Substantial Critique
"Happiness", first of all, is a poorly chosen word for a concept which is to permeate a whole book. it is easy to show that many people care about other things beside happiness, and consequently that Layard's assertion that, "unlike all other goals, [that of happiness] is self-evidently good" (p. 113). In a terrific meditation on happiness, Robert Nozick, in his book The Examined Life, asks whether one is indifferent as to when one's happiness comes over a life-time of fixed length, provided that the quantity of happiness is unchanged under any stream. Many people I have asked seem not to be indifferent, which sufficiently shows that individuals care about other things beside happiness.

Now I tried to do the same thing as did Nozick with utility rather than happiness on this blog last month, but that is a lot more difficult, because utility is what our actions strive to achieve. Had Layard substituted utility for happiness, it would have been harder to argue against his thesis. But he did not, so it is not.

However, even if Layard had written about utility rather than happiness, it is still easy enough to argue against his thesis. Remarkably, he must be familiar with some famous arguments, as he briefly mentions some of them in the book, but they seem somehow not to have registered with him, for he mostly sloughs over them like trivialities. The book would not have left me with this impression had it given fairer hearing to opposing arguments. Case in point: As noted, Layard believes more happiness (or utility, as I will now call it) is self-evidently good. In a foot note on page 113, he takes care to highlight that he wants maximum "good feeling" rather than "desires" (which may result in long-run unhappiness), but then Layard must tell us what causes "good feeling". My bet is that he will pick things which are not "self-evidently good" and leave out stuff which some people feel should be in.

Layard's own values are imposed when he talks about "fairness" and he argues that poor folks ought to have greater weights when policies are evaluated according to their effects on happiness. This already shows that the maximal attainment of happiness is not "self-evidently good". Relatedly, Layard sloughs off Nozick's brilliant example of the Experience Machine on the grounds that "it is a weak test case" because it is "far removed from our reality" (p. 115). All assertion and no argument. On the contrary, engaging in thought experiments of this kind is extremely rewarding. The thought experiment is that the Experience Machine will improve upon our happiness, but Layard feebly tries to change the terms ("maybe the machine could not be trusted?") rather than engage with the argument.

Later, Layard handles the issue of consequentialism really badly, claiming misunderstandings by critics of consequentialism because the action is itself factored into the consequences (pp. 119-120). By this criterion, Layard would have to argue that, in a world of racists, a judge convinced of the innocence of a differently-coloured man should still sentence him to death since failure to do so will likely result in unruliness and fatal street-violence by indignant bigots. Now some consequentialists bite the bullet and claim this is what should happen, but it is hardly uncontroversial and Layard does not even mention this consequence of his ethics. Layard must argue for the death of just one man to save others, for "[p]ublic policy has to deal with human nature as it is" (p. 153).

To repeat, this is a really terrible thesis set in a book of many interesting findings. Time after time, Layard lays out a poor, easily-destroyed case for opposing views, and then proceeds to the façile task of doing so. Because the negatives of this book form such a crucial part of its overall thesis, it is unavoidable that the book as a whole must be regarded as a bad one. This is unfortunate because it is also possible to greatly enjoy its many interesting presentations, such as the evolution of happiness within many countries, or its erudite exposition on anti-depressant drugs. To read this book is like searching for pearls in the Augean stables before Heracles rerouted the rivers to clean them. Some of the pearls are extremely valuable, so it will be well worth it for many people, but they should be warned, for the big thesis represents the accumulated filth of thirty years of unhemmed bovine excretory practices.

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