Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Layard makes me less Happy

Layard's book on happiness is out in paperback and continues its inexorable march to the forefront of left wing economic thought. His work has always upset me (I'm not the only one) as I have a feeling that he, as an LSE academic, reduces the value of my degree every time he further embeds us into the socialist ferment. The precis of his argument that is contained in the New Stateman article published on his page at the Center for Economic Performance is more than sufficient to allow you to understand what he is getting at and why he is wrong so I wouldn't recommend buying the book unless he actually convinces you with the article and you want to implement his awful ideas. If someone tells me the book has seen him perform a U-turn then I might consider reading it, however, I doubt that is the case and as every page of the New Statesman article leaves me less convinced I don't think a book length dose of Layard will leave me converted.

He leads into the article, and I presume the book, with the fact that survey evidence suggests no increase in happiness since the 1950s despite vast increases in income. This is, as he notes, due to the fact that people's aspirations also change over time in line with their incomes; the ability to own a TV made you a king in the past but now seems dull and ordinary. He then argues that the rise in aspirations means that there are externalities to being rich which deserve high marginal taxation in order to reduce their numbers and compensate for the "pollution". Layard has, therefore, justified the crudest kind of old socialism which explains why he is being published so widely in founts of common sense like the New Statesman. Flaws with Layard's work in no particular order:

1) His study of happiness is vulnerable to the Lucas critique. While the notion that only relative changes in income matter may be true now if the engine of steady increases in income stops this result could certainly change. Perhaps people only treat incomes as a relative quantity when rising absolute amounts are a given and they have the luxury of comparison? Perhaps the steady state happiness with no growth is a lower amount?

2) He assumes that global governance can be established. Were high marginal rates adopted in Britain we would be able to compare ourselves with the French and everyone else we had become poorer than. We would also suffer a chronic decline in national power. People like their team to be winning and would be unhappy to see our collective status so diminished.

3) He assumes that income comparisons are made between a person and the mean income. More likely people compare to their peers (those at a similar status to themselves). I find it credible that seeing richer students around me makes me feel poor and inadequate. However, Bill Gates is simply outside my frame of comparison at the moment and I would expect this is true for nearly every person who isn't incredibly rich. This suggests that reducing the number of rich people won't make much difference to the happiness of the middle classes or poor.

4) He first argues that comparing yourself with those around you is an inescapable part of human nature and then almost immediately that performance related pay is dangerous because it encourages you to compare yourself with those around you.

5) He dismisses the connection between high levels of legal protection of job security and unemployment despite the simple logic that making people hard to fire makes them far more risky to hire and the evidence available from a cursory examination of the results in the continental European states. He does this by arguing that there are unnamed "exceptions" and claiming a lack of welfare to work is the problem. Given that welfare to work only affects the willingly unemployed is he arguing that there are plenty of job opportunities available in Germany and France right now? That the unemployed of the banlieues are all choosing to remain on benefits because the income from working isn't worth the effort?

6) He uses the data on the decline of trust in others as evidence for a general moral decline rather than using the simpler explanation that people spend more time dealing with those they don't know and should be careful about trusting.

7) His logic extends to other activities besides getting rich which have implications for the happiness of others. Ann Coulter probably upsets far more people than she enthuses. The clear implication from thinking in happiness terms is to censor her. Equally, some people are real misers and will bring down those around them; thinking in terms of happiness suggests shunning them or worse. Without liberalism the kind of crude utilitarianism Layard is proposing requires some fairly unpleasant behaviour; if Layard is willing to admit liberalism in cases of free speech then surely he has to extend it to free economic activity?

8) He ignores the Brave New World critique. For someone who wants to establish "happiness" above all else this is surely a massive failure. If we all want to be really happy why not just drug ourselves silly? His section on Mental Health sounds positively sinister in this light.

I'm sure there are plenty more reasons why Layard is wrong; that's just a quick survey. In the end he has chosen a measure of human progress (happiness) which sounds inoffensive but which is used as a blunt tool to attack human progress on the grounds that keeping up is stressful. This is a part of the intellectual tradition that has us drugging our poor until they can't feel the pain any more. This is the latest manifestation of the Left's ability to find a new way to be wrong with each passing generation.

No comments: