6 July 2007

Richard Layard - Happiness

Richard Layard is, supposedly, a new economics guru, holding a position that Charles Leadbetter did a decade ago. As Leadbetter was adopted by Tony Blair for his writing on social entrepreneurship, Layard has been taken up by David Cameron (see this speech) for his theory of social happiness. Sound a bit woolly? It sure is.

Layard's ideas, such as they are, develop from Utilitarianism, as defined by Bentham and then John Stuart Mill. This is a philosophy that the greatest good arises from what brings the greatest happiness to most people. An old, well-established theory that Layard claims to update, calling it a 'science of happiness'.

So what makes this a science? Well, essential characteristics of a science are that it is definable, measurable and testable. And Layard tries to satisfy these conditions. He says that we know when people are happy because we can ask them. And we know that their responses are consistent across nations because we ask similar questions and use large samples and get similar responses.

A lot of the beginning of the book is taken up with showing that we can measure happiness, through MRI scans, and there's a lot of references to research, although in a frustratingly vague way. He will refer to four surveys within one paragraph, then assume that the argument has been concluded and move on.

Much of the book is like this, and more of it is just conjecture. There's no economic theory here, just airy optimistic waffle about how societies function better through cooperation rather than rampant self-interest, how taxation is good, and we should give to the third world because it makes us feel better. It's flimsy stuff.

If you're seeking happiness, don't read this book, it won't fulfil.


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