A Few Good Laughs About Happiness
By Bryan Caplan
Here’s a pretty funny interview (free registration required) with Lord Richard Layard on happiness research. Highlights:
Layard’s big thing is taxation. He is convinced that paying taxes makes us really happy and that if we paid more we would be even happier. ‘Taxation is not really an infringement of freedom, you see. It creates freedom,’ he says.
Although some of what Layard says makes sense, this does not. I remind him of Britain in the 1970s, when the rich left the country and the ‘brain drain’ occurred. And what of aspirational people who hope one day to earn decent money, but don’t want to give a third of it to the tax man? Why else do so maw of us go to a great deal of trouble to pay less tax by legal means? Sweden has a high rate of tax and an even higher suicide rate. Surely if people were happy to pay high taxes, Layard’s own party would be advocating it?
‘What I am saying above all,’ he remarks, slowly, ‘is that we must have more equality.’
‘But some people are always more equal than others. The smallest differences cause just as much envy as the biggest. Are you saying people were happier in the Soviet Union?’ ‘Er, no. I’m not saying people were happier in the Soviet Union.’
Layard is an odd man. A happy man who bangs on about unhappiness. A comfortably off man who rails against wealth. I can’t quite see how this makes him fully qualified to tell the government what to do about our wellbeing. In any case, in the end happiness is no one’s business but our own. If Lord Layard told my plumber that he should give up the rat race and pay more taxes, he would probably get a bop on the snozzle for his trouble.
I bet Arnold will say that this interview confirms that happiness research is quackery.
But it confirms my view that leftists who study happiness suffer from severe confirmation bias. Happiness research has all sorts of uncomfortable implications for the left, on everything from labor market regulation to negative externalities to complaining about inequality. The science is pretty good; the problem is that most people who study happiness look at the policy implications through left-tinted glasses.