Book Review: Wellbeing: Alternative Policy Perspectives edited by Timothy Besley and Irene Bucelli

In Advantages: Other Policy Optionsavailability opening up opportunities from LSE Press – editors Timothy Besley and Irene Bucelli bring together stakeholders to explore how different disciplinary approaches can contribute to the study of well-being and set priorities. Andrew Oswald recommends this excellent volume.

Advantages: Other Policy Options. Timothy Besley and Irene Bucelli (eds). LSE Press. 2022.

The Cover of GoodnessAdvantages: Other Policy Options it is an important book. It contains contributions from several well-known artists. The topics are clear and very readable. If you come home from lunch to find your office on fire and have time to grab a book, you might want to pick this one up.

One reason is this: the subject of this book is central to everything we see around us. It has been puzzling, and I can’t explain it clearly, that all economists want their children to be happy and their spouses to be happy and their countries to be happy, but for years they have been reluctant to try something bad. As many researchers know, the title of this edited book should have ‘joy’ in its title, but we have ‘goodness’ instead, which is fine by me.

Richard Layard begins the main chapters. He is a famous and natural person to do this because he has probably done more than any other academic in the world to advance, in a practical way, the use of health information as a key factor in the development of national policy. I believe that many liberal economists and government ministers will read his article. His message on a large scale is simple. We want policies that help our citizens live happy and fulfilling lives. So let’s think that through the planning of the policy, and then measure the happiness and satisfaction of life before and after the change of policy.

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Two balloons with smiley faces on gray background

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Floating behind it all, like a happy grise ethereal eminence, is a genius named Richard Easterlin. He is still Professor of Economics at the University of Southern California, although he is no longer lecturing, and not far from his 100th birthday. He began to study well-being, hypothetically – but surprisingly his name is nowhere to be found in the 200 pages here.

I mention all this because policy makers have never faced the ‘Easterlin Paradox’. This is a fact, first shown by Easterlin in 1974, that in decades the US has had a higher and higher GDP but, surprisingly, the statistics of happiness in repeated surveys show no change (there is similar evidence for other countries). Indeed, in the last decade or two, the level of happiness in the General Social Survey of the United States is at an obvious downward trend. This is seriously reducing the rhetoric of many politicians on the economic front so, as far as I know, no politician is willing to think about offending the written word. I don’t expect to see that reluctance change in my life, but one day it will, I suspect.

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The closest I have seen to a good speech on such matters was given recently in Oxford by the Prime Minister of Iceland, Katrín Jakobsdóttir. He explained that people spend a lot of their money on buying goods, which fail to bring happiness to people. It’s a form of ‘pollution’ (in Layard’s words, at the same meeting) because my neighbour’s shiny new car is unconsciously designed to make me and others feel inferior. There is plenty of room – fixed income – around. Thus, we would have a much happier world if those things were put into green spaces, clean air, strong opportunities to protect the good life among people, and so on.

At the time of writing, two politicians in my country, Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng, believe that the way to a happy country is to allow people to ‘save their money’, to spend it, perhaps, on public affairs. property. They have a right to their belief, although a look at the evidence would reveal that the happiest countries in the World Happiness Report have large government sectors and high taxes. I think the reckoning will come one day and 200 years from now, the ideas of many politicians of the year 2022 will seem confused and outdated.

Next on the list is Paul Dolan’s title. They want to investigate the effects of living well as a single, focused approach to evaluate policy interventions. He advocates the use of the ‘wellbeing-adjusted life-year’ (WELLBY) concept in making cost-effectiveness decisions when choosing policies. There is enough money to be said about it. However, I still have one concern. It’s philosophical, I think, and it brings me back to the higher education I had to do in moral philosophy and the foundations of religion.

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Let’s say that a policy increases one person’s life by one year. Is it good? Maybe that person would think so. And there are arguments to say that it is good. But we soon encounter the changing tides of philosophy. Let’s imagine, to try to imagine this, that the UK has 65 million people. So consider it going up with one more citizen. Would you say happiness/health has risen in the UK? This is the problem with putting Life Years into values. A year of life is like an extra person. I’d prefer to measure average sensitivity, not weight and Life Years (but maybe some of us just did the moral wisdom to our advantage).

I will conclude by saying that I see Goodness as an excellent contribution, that the two editors Tim Besley and Irene Bucelli deserve our gratitude and thanks and that all the chapters are an impressive work. I highly recommend this excellent volume.


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