Are Policy Makers Responsible for Our Happiness?

“Societies need subjective indicators of well-being to aid policy makers and ordinary citizens in making decisions.” This is the opening line of the recently published book, “Well-being for Public Policy” by Ed Diener, Richard Lucas, Ulrich Schimmack and John Helliwell. The first three authors are psychologists (Diener has played a leading role in the field of happiness research) and Helliwell is an economist.

The final sentence of the first paragraph explains: “Overall, accounts of subjective indicators of well-being will help policy makers make wiser decisions regarding policy alternatives and help citizens be better educated about the choices that affect their lives”.

I am in favour of research to enable people to become better informed about the choices that affect their lives. I hope that what the authors mean by “help citizens to be better educated” doesn’t involve anything more sinister than publication of research findings.

While reading the book I became irritated by what seems to me to be a naive view it presents of the policy making process. Although the nature of policy making is largely incidental to the purpose of the book, I will devote the remained of this comment to policy making. I promise to focus on the substance of the book in a later post.

According to the “public interest” view presented in the book, public policies are made by “policy makers” who would make wise decisions if only they knew what policies would improve the well-being of citizens. In reality, however, the policy making process is a messy business which involves politicians seeking votes and hoping to further their careers, civil servants seeking to expand and protect empires, voters who have little interest in most policy issues and even less incentive to understand likely consequences of the proposals being considered, interest groups seeking to further the interests of the people they represent and electoral rules that may give disproportionate power to particular groups. The process also attracts ideologues of various kinds who wish to advance their particular views of the good society.

In my view, rather than attempting to persuade us that more information on the subjective well-being of citizens would help some hypothetical “policy maker” to make better decisions, it would have been better if the authors had sought to persuade us that this information would enable policy processes to produce better outcomes.

Would this have made any difference to the book? Although the basic arguments about the validity of subjective well-being measures and their potential usefulness would have been unchanged, I think this change of focus would have made some difference. In particular, it seems to me is that the authors would have had less difficulty convincing readers that they “do not advocate the idea that governments should intervene strongly to move society towards a primary goal of increased well-being” (p209). When most of the book seems to be devoted to telling “policy makers” how they can use subjective information to improve the well-being of citizens it is natural enough to expect readers to be concerned that some “policy makers” might act paternalistically in using this information. Some readers might not be entirely reassured that paternalistic “policy makers” would have regard to the findings of happiness research which show that humans tend to feel most satisfied when they perceive that they have freedom to choose how to live their lives.

The problem of how paternalistic interventionists might like to use research findings is placed in perspective once it is recognized that competing interests are involved in policy-making through discussions in a range of different forums. These discussions are about various things, but the matters discussed by vast majority of participants usually relate in some way to the effects of different policies on the well-being of people.

The important issue is whether measures of subjective well-being can make useful contributions to the discussion of policy issues.

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