Richard Layard's blend of Benthamite utilitarianism and modern psychology suggests a new mission for politics. It's a pity he can't call it what it isby Tom Nuttall / April 17, 2005 / Leave a comment
Published in April 2005 issue of Prospect Magazine
Happiness: Lessons from a New Science by Richard Layard (Allen Lane, £17.99) In his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789), Jeremy Bentham describes his “felicific calculus”—an algorithm for working out the amount of happiness likely to be caused by a given action. Under Bentham’s utilitarianism, the right action is that which leads to the greatest happiness. So the felicific calculus—including such variables as intensity, duration, certainty, propinquity, fecundity and purity—provided people with a scientific method for determining how to behave morally. This approach to an aspect of human existence as apparently intangible as happiness seems anachronistic, a curious artefact of late-Enlightenment optimism. And this is how many 20th-century moral philosophers have seen it. But Richard Layard, Labour peer and labour economist, has reheated Bentham for the 21st century. According to Layard, Bentham’s notion that levels of individual happiness can be objectively measured, and can be taken to lie upon a single dimension from very unhappy to very happy, has been vindicated by modern psychology. Combine Bentham’s philosophy with our modern understanding of the causes of individual and collective happiness, argues Layard, and you can generate a radically new approach to policymaking. Layard is interested in policy rather than philosophy, and his book brushes over the philosophical objections to utilitarianism. One of the most common objections is this: if we are concerned simply to maximise happiness, then we should have no difficulty with the idea of distributing a drug which delivers perfect happiness to all who ingest it. But such an idea leaves us uneasy—which is why we find Huxley’s Brave New World so alarming. Layard equivocates here, suggesting “if someone finds a happiness drug without side effects… most of us will sometimes use it.” But the Brave New World example reveals the role that authenticity plays in our everyday moral calculus, and Layard’s utilitarianism has no interest in authenticity, only happiness. Any persuasive account of utilitarianism needs to show us why our reservation is wrong, or at least how it can be co-opted into the quest for happiness. But focusing on happiness as an aim of policy is a perfectly proper objective. Layard’s book is a first stab at outlining what kind of results such an approach could lead to. The first half sets out the case against an obsession with economic growth. We are told that the model of human behaviour on which modern economics relies is limited and out of date, and that because increasing wealth beyond around $20,000 per head does not automatically translate to increased happiness, the exclusive focus on GDP growth is misdirected, and sometimes harmful. After this, you might expect Layard’s prescriptions to push the boat out a bit. Some of his suggestions do run against the grain. He proposes, for instance, the use of taxation as a disincentive to excessive working, because to work more and thus to earn more is to create a negative “externality”: it makes your neighbours feel inferior. But most of Layard’s proposals fall within the soft left, social democratic consensus—make the workplace more family-friendly; combat unemployment; reduce inequality; ban advertising to under-12s, as is the case in Sweden. It is not obvious why we cannot use Bentham’s rule to justify far greater intrusions into private life. If advertising is damaging to happiness by creating a pointless “arms race” of consumer spending, why restrict the ad ban to under-12s? And if, as all the evidence suggests, a stable family life is so essential to wellbeing, why does Layard accept without argument the modern liberal consensus that the state has little or no role in adult relationships? Freedom is only valuable insofar as it serves happiness, after all. But Layard seems to cling to what for him should be an outdated fear of paternalism, hesitating when the logic of his argument points towards illiberalism. There is a real debate to be had here. We know that people often engage in behaviour which is not only bad for them and makes them unhappy, but which they themselves recognise to be so. We are not very good at making and keeping ourselves happy, despite the fact that, in a society that has largely banished material scarcity, the means to happiness lie within the grasp of most of us. Should a benevolent, democratic state, aware of human fallibility and in possession of some of the means to correct it, step in? Layard steps back from the brink, suggesting that human irrationality has “no clear policy implication because the direction in which it biases behaviour is not clear.” But what about those occasions where it is clear? A useful example comes from “Libertarian Paternalism is not an Oxymoron,” an essay published by Brookings and the AEI in the US in 2003. The essay cites a study in which several US companies changed their pension rules for employees. Rather than being asked whether they wanted to opt into the plan, as previously, workers were automatically enrolled into the plan but given the chance to opt out. This small change, which in no way changed the options available to the workers, merely the ways in which they were framed, led to enrolment rates soaring. If we assume that enrolment rates in pension schemes are too low—that many workers who are not signing up will later suffer a lower level of happiness as a result—then it seems reasonable to ignore human irrationality (lazy inertia in this case) and to engineer higher enrolment rates. And let us give this its proper name—paternalism. A complicating factor here is the modern distrust of politicians—for a paternalistic state to be able to deploy its armoury of happiness-improving measures, it needs first to command the trust and loyalty of its citizens. Either this or it will have to engage in a bit of “honourable deception.” (Gordon Brown’s quietly redistributive tax policy may be an example, based on the premise that the correlation between wealth and happiness is stronger at the lower end of the income scale.) The claim that happiness trumps freedom is a frighteningly large one, and its policy implications are not immediately clear. Layard’s cautious pragmatism is perhaps the most sensible approach for now—for “happiness studies” is a relatively new field. Psychologists, economists, political scientists, philosophers and even computer scientists are moving towards models of human behaviour that rely less on “economic man” and more on our new understanding of how the mind works and how it influences behaviour. Layard’s book is a contribution to this movement. Although his suggestions are overly mindful of liberal sensibilities, and on occasion slightly uninspiring, he is helping us to grope towards a new defining mission for politics.