A Total Failure According to Its Own Standards? Give Me a Dozen!

In an astoundingly shallow review of several books on happiness, Carol Tavris drops this humdinger in her discussion of Layard’s statist impulses:

Professor Layard takes [active government promotion of happiness] further, proposing that government should make the happiness of its citizens a primary goal, the heart of its public and economic policy, using laws and taxes to reward cooperation in pursuit of a common good, make work life more compatible with family life, help the poor, reduce rates of mental illness, subsidize activities that promote “community life”, reduce commuting time, eliminate high unemployment, prohibit commercial advertising to children (as Sweden does) . . . . If the thermostat theory is right, none of this will raise the overall happiness level of the population, and some temperamentally grouchy people will complain that they miss the traffic, but who cares? Sign me up. [emphasis added]

Got that? Even if the entire justification offered for all this state action is completely and totally undermined by the empirical evidence, Tavris wants to sign up for it anyway. Why? No doubt because Layard’s interpretation of happiness “science” coveniently, nay miraculously, maps onto her existing political commitments, and it’s nice to have another arrow in the rhetorical quiver.

Worse, because Tavris thinks all this is worth doing even if no one is made any happier, she presumably thinks that all this frighteningly anti-liberal social engineering would work, thereby providing real benefits according to some other evaluative standard, leaving only the terminally grouchy to complain about the lack of things to complain about. This is precisely the kind of fantastically ignorant faith in technocracy that makes the sunny pseudoscientific authoritarianism of the neo-Benthamites so dangerous.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center