Deirdre McCloskey on the science of happiness

Deirdre McCloskey’s “Happyism: the Creepy New Economics of Pleasure” (New Republic, June 8) was one of David Brooks’ favorite articles of the year. It is indeed funny and learned, and McCloskey scores some valid points, but I think she evades the hardest questions.

The effort to quantify happiness goes back to utilitarianism (and before that, to Thomas Hobbes), but it has become highly empirical in the last few decades. The findings tend to challenge the gospel of free markets, because happiness seems to be only weakly correlated with liberty and prosperity but more reliably related to security and community. From a libertarian perspective, one ought to be suspicious of any argument that happiness can be enhanced by limiting freedom. Indeed, McCloskey believes just the opposite. She thinks that once happiness (rather than piety or honor) became a public priority, individuals were unleashed to pursue their own happiness, and that led to an astounding increase in prosperity that has also enhanced people’s happiness.

I agree that individual liberty can boost prosperity and that prosperity has genuine benefits for human development. I tend to assume, for example, that the liberalization of the Indian and Chinese economies since the 1980s has done far more good than harm. But McCloskey oversimplifies the story.

First of all, her explanation of economic growth is too simple. She attributes it to a change in public philosophy:

In the eighteenth century, our earthly happiness became important to us …. As a result, real income per head commenced rising after 1800, from the hopeless $3 a day that humanity had endured since the caves. … It’s ten times more stuff, more access to clean water, a higher life expectancy, and even, for the middling, more dishes of ice cream and more pastrami on rye.

She tells this story in large books that I have not read, but I would have to be persuaded to discount all the other explanations of economic growth since 1600 or 1800: colonial conquests, slaves, and silver; stock markets and banks; puritanical campaigns against worldly happiness; the steam engine and long-distance sailing ships.

Her intellectual history is also too simple:

By 1738, the Comte de Mirabeau wrote to a friend, recommending simply, ‘[W]hat should be our only goal: happiness.’ … To see how strange such a remark is, consider whether it could have been uttered by a leader of opinion in 1538. Martin Luther? Michelangelo? Charles V? No. They sought heavenly, artistic, or political glory—not something so domestic as happiness.

Those three examples are well chosen, but an old tradition did presume that happiness was the purpose of human life. Both before and after the bourgeois revolutions that McCloskey celebrates, happiness had defenders as well as critics. For instance, Aristotle  asked (in Ross’ translation), “what is the highest of all goods achievable by action”? He answered: “Verbally there is very general agreement; for both the general run of men and people of superior refinement say that it is happiness, and identify living well and doing well with being happy; but with regard to what happiness is they differ, and the many do not give the same account as the wise.” The “many” (both in Aristotle’s day and in 1538) assumed that happiness was “some plain and obvious thing, like pleasure.”

McCloskey’s critique of the methodology of “happiness economics” also strikes me as too sweeping. I am all for debunking scientific pretensions in fields like economics that really rest on philosophical principles. But in faulting happiness research, McCloskey rides some hobby horses of her own. She has separately criticized statistical significance, arguing that this is an arbitrary threshold and that many findings meet the statistical test of significance without actually being meaningful. That is correct, but the question is whether all the claims of happiness research are insignificant in moral or policy terms. It’s a poor argument to say: (1) happiness statistics are presented as statistically significant; (2) the concept of statistical significance is widely misunderstood and overblown; therefore (3) happiness statistics must be misleading. McCloskey also criticizes happiness research for failing to address the difficulty of interpersonal comparisons, but I think that difficulty is widely acknowledged.

Her faith in progress also seems too simple:

One of the proponents of happiness studies, the eminent British economist Richard Layard, is fond of noting that “happiness has not risen since the ’50s in the U.S. or Britain or (over a shorter period) in western Germany.” Such an allegation casts doubt on the relevance of the “happiness” so measured. No one who lived in the United States or Britain in the ’50s (I leave judgments on West Germany in the ’70s to others) could possibly believe that the age of Catcher in the Rye or The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner was more fulfilling than recent times.

I think it is a difficult, interesting, and unresolved question whether people are happier in the US and Britain today (the age of Infinite Jest and The Corrections) than they were in the 1950s. The answer presumably varies by region and demographic group, but I find it completely plausible that at least some groups are less happy now. If we take suicide as a very hard measure of unhappiness, we can see that it has risen since 195o for younger men (Black and White) and for older Black men:

McCloskey does offer an attractively humane view of happiness. Of a modern woman in a developed country, she writes:

She has hugely greater scope, capabilities, potential, real personal income for what Wilhelm von Humboldt described in 1792 as Bildung, ‘self-culture,’ ‘self-development,’ life plans, the second-order preferences fulfilled that make for inner and outer success in life. She leads a life in full—fuller in work, travel, education, health, acquaintance, imagination.

A well-fed cat sitting in the sun is ‘happy’ in the pot-of-pleasure sense of happiness studies. The pussy is a 3 [on a 1-3 scale]. But what the modern world offers to men and women and children as against cats and other machines for pleasure is not merely such ‘happiness,’ but a uniquely enlarged scope to realize themselves.

I agree that liberty and prosperity have extended human capabilities over the centuries and across the globe. It is a different question whether the extra doses of consumer advertising, the longer working hours, the movement from manufacturing to service jobs, and the decreasing security seen in the US in  the last quarter century have brought any extra Bildung. I doubt it.

(See also Unhappiness and Injustice are Different Problems, Must You be Good to be Happy?, and Why we wish that goodness brought happiness, and why that is not so.)

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.