What Would a Hedonistic Economy Look Like?
By Bryan Caplan
In Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert skewers the belief that money buys happiness – then defends this error as a Noble Lie:
If no one wants to be rich, then we have a significant economic problem, because flourishing economies require that people continually procure and consume one another’s goods and services. Market economies require that we all have an insatiable hunger for stuff, and if everyone were content with the stuff they had, then the economy would grind to a halt.
Fortunately, market economies are far more robust than Gilbert realizes. What happens when people decide they don’t want to be rich? Labor supply falls and production goes down. But that’s hardly a “problem” – it’s just the market’s response to an increased desire for leisure. When people demand more pumpkins, the market produces more pumpkins and less of everything else. When people demand more leisure, similarly, the market produces more leisure, and less of everything else. As Arnold would say, that’s a feature of the market economy – not a bug.
Won’t the economy “grind to a halt”? Of course not. Once we’re satisfied with our stock of goods, we still have to keep producing enough to keep the stock from shrinking. If that only requires one hour of labor per day, what’s the problem?
An outside observer who looked at a country where people only worked an hour a day might hesitate to say it had a “flourishing economy.” But properly measured, he could: He just has to remember to count the value of leisure. To defend misconceptions about happiness because they raises material output is make-work bias writ large: Working hard to produce a lot of stuff people don’t want is bad economics.
Now a happiness researcher might respond: People like working; it makes them feel useful. The hour-a-day economy will make them feel miserable. But that’s hardly a problem either: If people want to feel useful, but don’t want to make much money, they can turn their hobbies into extremely low-paying jobs. (I’ll be a professional Hero System game master). Too artificial? Fine: Then do enough “real” work to feel useful, and donate the surplus to charity. Either way, problem solved.