Looks like the Economist-sponsored debate at Gotham Hall in New York City was the place to be on Saturday evening. In the blue corner we had libertarian heavyweights (and Prospect contributors) Tyler Cowen and Will Wilkinson, attacking the proposition that “America is failing at the pursuit of happiness” against their red-corner interlocutors Jeffrey Sachs and Betsey Stevenson.
As so often happens when new evidence from the social sciences begins to feed into policy debates, the initial divisions over how best to apply the lessons from “happiness studies” to public policy have calcified into drearily familiar left/right arguments over state intervention, levels of taxation and so forth. Those on the left are often overly quick to misinterpret the data tracing levels of self-reported happiness over time against levels of income growth, jumping to glib conclusions of the “you can’t buy happiness” flavour. Yet many on the right, even the wonkish right, don’t seem willing even to countenance the possibility that some of the emerging research findings may have policy implications—that, for instance, a greater understanding of the factors that contribute to happiness may be useful when considering alternatives to GDP as measures of wellbeing.
The line-up at the New York debate, which was broadly aligned left/right, might suggest that similar forces were at play. And according to Wilkinson’s own account, Sachs was more interested in denouncing George W Bush than in discussing the proposition he was charged with defending. Fortunately, both Wilkinson and Cowen are cogent and nuanced thinkers—Wilkinson has made a career out of careful and close scrutiny of the happiness data, and Cowen’s idiosyncratic approach to economic questions, documented daily on his wonderful blog Marginal Revolution, is always guaranteed to stimulate. This morning, Cowen’s “evil (and unhappy) twin” Tyrone takes to the pages of Marginal Revolution to explain how he would have taken on his brother. He begins: “Start with the disproportionately large number of Americans in prison. They are not happy. Furthermore they don’t get to answer most questionnaires.”