It has been a busy and dyspeptic week. The Happiness Industry: How the Government and Big Business Sold Us Well-Being by William Davies has been the perfect accompanying reading material. The enthusiasm of many of my fellow economists for behavioural economics has made me increasingly uneasy. This is, after all, a profession strongly inclined towards social engineering, and I’ve written here before about the likelihood that nudges are seen as an exciting new tool for this job. After all, they seem to work, and as even the status quo is a nudge, why wouldn’t you design better nudges to deliver better outcomes?
The Happiness Industry eloquently reinforces my suspicions. It locates the fashion for “well-being” in the long tradition of making the internal world measurable and reducing questions of morality and political choices to scientific decisions. Economics, rooted in Bentham’s utilitarian calculus, plays a leading role in the story, as do the successive waves of management science from Taylorism on. Indeed, in management, the growing surveillance of employees’ ‘well-being’ by wearable devices is the latest version.
Davies points out there is an inconsistency at the heart of this: “Workplaces put a growing emphasis on community and psychological commitment, but against longer term trends towards atomization and insecurity. We have an economic model which mitigates against precisely the psychological attributes it depends upon.” Yet the emphasis on resilience or mindfulness puts all the onus on the individual to adjust: “one progressive route would involve changing [the] context. But another equivalent would be to focus on changing the way it is experienced.”
He is also critical of the economists’ use of the idea of revealed preference: that you can infer somebody’s inner preferences or desires from their choices, usually their choices about what to spend their money on. Shopping speaks louder than words. Perhaps wearables that can measure heart rate or sweat will replace money as the best revealed preference metric, but meanwhile what someone spends is a readily-measurable indicator, easier to count and compare than what people say about their emotions. “This granted money an exceptional psychological status, as it allowed others to peep into people’s private desires.”
Disliking money as a metric, Davies is therefore also critical, as many people have been, of using the technique of contingent valuation to put monetary values on, say, the impact of an environmental disaster. “What we witness in this sort of example is economics becoming used as a basis for broad public agreement well beyond the limits of the market place,” Davies writes. He’s in good company. Michael Sandel and George Monbiot are among those who dislike the use of money as a measure of non-monetary values, such as nature, or relationhips, or civic virtue.
However, this seems to me distinct from the reductionism of the behavioural economists and psychologists. It is one answer to the question of how you resolve conflicts when there is no market: if you have to make interpersonal comparisons, how should you go about it? Or, in the words of a well known survey article, is some number better than no number? If you want to calculate compensation after an oil spill, how else could you go about it? So I am far more comfortable with these valuation techniques than I am with the happiness tendency.
On the latter, my instincts are with Davies: ” Behaviourism stretches Bentham’s dream of a scientific politics to its limit, imagining that beneath the illusion of individual freedom lie the cold mechanics of cause and effect, observable only to the expert eye.” When I teach my students behavioural economics – and they’re very interested in it – I ask them to look at this Adam Curtis blog, From Pigeon to Superman and Back Again. While not dismissing the policy sense of some nudges, beware economists who know how to make you happy and beware even more bosses demanding it of you.