Romantic Nihilism

Yesterday evening I took part in a discussion at Policy Exchange with Professor Avner Offer about treating the future with due respect (the video will be up later today) – my comments linked of course to The Economics of Enough. The new campaign group Action for Happiness provided me with my topical intro, as it launched yesterday.

The group has touched a nerve, or a need, clearly – its website has been overwhelmed by traffic. Without at all meaning to downplay the extent of many people's anxieties, or of depression and other illnesses, I've posted here before about the economic nonsense being spouted by 'happiness' campaigners, so won't repeat it. A lot of what they say is in fact perfectly sensible, drawing on lessons from the positive psychology movement. The group's website has a lot of good advice for people who seek to improve their own well-being. My problem is with happiness as a government policy, and it's twofold.

First, it is simply not correct to say that because there's no link between measured happiness (on a scale of 1 to 3 or 1 to 5) and measured GDP (on a scale of zero to anything), governments should stop bothering about economic growth. GDP is a vital (although flawed) indicator of welfare, as it captures the innovations and increased opportunities that are how market capitalism increases welfare.

Secondly, measured happiness changes little over time, given its construction, and we're pretty happy in the UK (2.6 out of 3). So no matter what else happens in the economy the government will claim all is ok because we're happy. The focus on happiness is a perversely debilitating force in any effort to reduce poverty or improve the quality of life. (For a contrary view, see the blog post by Matthew Taylor of the RSA.)

The 'happiness' movement seems to be one in a succession of romantic nihilist movements that have co-existed with capitalism. John Ruskin, a better art critic than an economist, was an early founder. In Unto This Last he wrote:

Wealth, therefore, is 'The possession of the valuable by the valiant';
and in considering it as a power existing in a nation, the two elements,
the value of the thing, and the valour of its possessor, must be
estimated together. Whence it appears that many of the persons commonly
considered wealthy, are in reality no more wealthy than the locks of
their own strong boxes are, they being inherently and eternally
incapable of wealth; and operating for the nation, in an economical
point of view, either as pools of dead water, and eddies in a stream
(which, so long as the stream flows, are useless, or serve only to drown
people, but may become of importance in a state of stagnation should
the stream dry); or else, as dams in a river, of which the ultimate
service depends not on the dam, but the miller; or else, as mere
accidental stays and impediments, acting not as wealth, but (for we
ought to have a correspondent term) as 'illth', causing various
devastation and trouble around them in all directions; or lastly, act
not at all, but are merely animated conditions of delay, (no use being
possible of anything they have until they are dead,) in which last
condition they are nevertheless often useful as delays, and

(Don't you love the Victorian skill with the semi-colon?)

Another classic example is Karl Polanyi's 1944 book The Great Transformation, with its aching nostalgia for pre-capitalist forms of production in the household and barter exchange. Like Ruskin, Polanyi's vision of the past managed to overlook its poverty, squalor and rigid social hierarchies. Richard Layard's fond memories of a boyhood of cold water and no central heating, recounted in his Happiness: Lessons from a New Science lie firmly in this romantic tradition.

It has no appeal for me, having also grown up with no central heating, and having to chip ice off the inside of my bedroom window in the winter. My happiness is my business, not the government's. They can stick with delivering stable GDP growth, encouraging innovation and creating jobs, thanks.


2 thoughts on “Romantic Nihilism

  1. Hi. Thanks for mentioning Action for Happiness. Please can you change the URL in your article to refer to our main site Your current link ( seems to be pointing to the holding page that was used on our launch day when we had extremely high traffic levels. Thanks!

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