Book Review: Wellbeing: Alternative Policy Perspectives edited by Timothy Besley and Irene Bucelli

IN Well-being: Alternative political perspectivesavailable Open access from LSE Press – editors Timothy Besley and Irene Bucelli bring together contributors to explore how different disciplinary approaches can contribute to the study of well-being and shape policy priorities. Andrew Oswald highly recommend this excellent volume.

Well-being: Alternative political perspectives. Timothy Besley and Irene Bucelli (eds.). LSE Press. 2022.

Wellbeing coverWell-being: Alternative political perspectives is a valuable book. It has contributions from a number of prominent researchers. The chapters are both compelling and highly readable. If you happen to come back from lunch to find your office on fire and you have time to grab a single book, you might want to pick this one up.

One of the reasons is this: the subject of the book is so central to everything we see around us. It has been a paradox, and I still cannot quite explain it, that all economists want their children to be happy and their spouses to be happy and their nations to be happy, but for ages they have been reluctant with measuring the damn thing. As many researchers in the field are aware, the title of this edited book should really have ‘happiness’ in the title, but instead we have ‘well-being’, which is ultimately fine by me.

Richard Layard begins the material chapters. He is both the eminent and natural person to do this, as he has probably done more than any other academic in the world to enforce in a practical way the use of welfare data as central to national policy-making. I hope that lots of open-minded economists and ministers will read his chapter. Its message at a broad level is simple. We want policies that help our citizens lead happy and fulfilling lives. So let’s think it through in planning a policy initiative and then measure happiness and life satisfaction before and after a policy change.

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Two balloons with smiley faces on them against a gray background

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Hovering behind all this, like a cheerful ethereal eminence grise, is a scholar called Richard Easterlin. He is still a professor of economics at the University of Southern California, although no longer lecturing, and not far from his 100th birthday. He started the study of well-being, as an approximation – but curiously, his name is not mentioned anywhere in this collection’s 200 pages.

I mention all this because the policy makers have not faced the “Easterlin Paradox”. This is the fact that Easterlin first showed in 1974 that over the decades the US has had higher and higher GDP, but paradoxically, in repeated studies, the happiness numbers show almost no improvement (there is similar evidence for other countries). For the past decade or two, happiness levels in the General Social Survey in the United States have been on a clear downward trend. This finding is so undermining of most politicians’ talk about the economy that almost no politicians, as far as I know, are willing to consider the disturbing facts of the data. I do not expect to see this reluctance undergo any change in my lifetime, but one day it will have to change, I suppose.

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The closest I’ve seen to a good speech on such issues was given recently in Oxford by the Prime Minister of Iceland, Katrín Jakobsdóttir. She explained that people spend a lot of their money on positional goods, which simply fail to increase the happiness of a society. It is a kind of ‘pollution’ (in Layard’s words at the same conference) because my neighbour’s shiny new car is unconsciously designed to make me and others feel that we have a less dignified life. There is only so much status – a fixed amount – to go around. We would thus have a happier country if the resources were instead put into green areas, clean air, strong welfare safety nets in society, and so on.

At the time of writing, two politicians in my country, Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng, believed that the way to a happy country is to let people ‘keep more of their own money’, presumably to be spent on even more positional goods. They are entitled to their beliefs, although a look at the evidence would reveal that the happiest nations in the World Happiness Report have large public sectors and high tax rates. I imagine that a reckoning will come one day, and that 200 years from now the views held by most year-2022 politicians will seem confused and archaic.

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Next in the collection is Paul Dolan’s chapter. He seeks to explore the consequences of adopting well-being as a single, dominant metric for evaluating policy interventions. He advocates using the concept of ‘well-being-adjusted life years’ (WELLBY) to make cost-benefit decisions in policy choices. There is quite a lot to be said for that. Still, I retain one concern. It’s philosophical, I suppose, and definitely takes me back to an undergraduate course I had to take in moral philosophy and the foundations of religion.

Let’s say a policy extends a person’s life by one year. Is it good? The person will probably think so. And there is an argument to be made that it really is good. But we quickly run into swirling philosophical currents. To try to think this through, let’s imagine that the UK has a population of 65 million people. Then imagine that it increases with one extra citizen. Would you say that happiness/well-being has increased in the UK? This is the problem with putting Life Years into criteria. A year of life is like an extra person. I’d prefer to measure average sentiment, not weighting by life years (but maybe some of us have just done too much moral philosophy for our own good).

I will conclude by saying that I see Wellbeing as a really fine contribution, that the two editors Tim Besley and Irene Bucelli deserve our congratulations and thanks, and that all the chapters are impressive work. I recommend this excellent volume.


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