The Fake Paradox of Prosperity

So, you know all the paradox flogging books: The Progress Paradox, The American Paradox, The Paradox of Choice. Layard begins Happiness with “There is a paradox at the heart of our lives.”

Now, I’m increasingly baffled by the idea that there is anything paradoxical afoot. Many of these books refer to “Easterlin’s Paradox,” in honor of Richard Easterlin’s famous ’74 paper showing that average self-reported happiness has not gone up as average income has gone up. Now, like I argued in my last post, this isn’t a paradox relative to orthodox economics, because happiness isn’t a concept in the theory of orthodox economics. There is a widespread folk theory, popular among economists, that says that desire satisfaction brings happiness, and that higher incomes brings more desire satisfaction, and so higher incomes ought to bring greater happiness. But the ideas of adaptation and social comparison most often used to explain the stability of the happiness trends are also part of popular folks theories, and, I think, much more plausible prior to rigorous investigation than the economist’s money–>happiness folk theory. Its pretty obvious from personal experience, not to mention from about the entirety of our literary tradition, that we tend to take what we have for granted, that we tend to measure ourselves against others we imagine to be our peers, the money alone won’t make you happy, that what we really need is each other, etc. So, the data show we’re wealthier and that we say we’re just as happy as we used to be. Where’s the paradox? There is no paradox.

But maybe there are explanations, other than the economist’s misguided folk theory, for the bullheaded insistence in describing as a “paradox” something that is in fact predictable and intuitive relative to intuitively plausible psychological principles.

In ages of yore there was a raging debate over whether capitalism or communism was best at delivering the goods. Capitalism now reigns as undisputed champ. But the conquest of scarcity under communism was also supposed to be psychologically transformative and liberatory. And so, yeah, capitalism delivers the goods. But are we transformed? No! We’re almost exactly the same, and that’s really disappointing. If you were expecting the era of material plenitude to free our minds for higher pursuits, and to enable deeper, more meaningful engagement with our fellow men, then capitalism may seem like a bust. We’re left yearning for something else.

So, we’re wealthier than ever, and have the extra freedom that entails. We’re at least as happy as ever. (Despite what you may read in the papers, the average isn’t flat, it’s just rising very slowly.) Indeed, we’re about as happy as people have ever been, as far as we can tell. Depression, like ADHD, is “on the rise” because simply because it is promiscuously defined and diagnosed. But there must be something wrong. Bowling alone? Ennervated by too many kinds of jam? Something. Because life’s just what it’s always been, only just a little better. And we were hoping for something more, well, dramatic.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center