Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Don't Screw With My U-Spot(s)

Happiness studies make me cranky. Well, maybe not the studies themselves so much as the suggestion that governments, especially our own, should use their findings as a justification to micromanage our lives.

Arthur Kling finds no joy in that prospect, either.

We can imagine how policies might evolve if, as Kahneman and Krueger suggest, the government views its goal as one of minimizing the average U-index for its citizens. Government would use laws, regulations, and monetary incentives to encourage activities that lead to pleasant states and to discourage activities that raise in the U-index.

Married people have lower U-indexes (less time in an unpleasant state) than singles. Perhaps divorce laws ought to be strengthened to reflect this.

The authors report that spending time in what they delicately refer to as "intimate relations" helps to lower the U-index. Maybe the FCC needs to fine the TV networks that don't do more to promote sex.

Raising children is more stressful than people expect. Government should incent couples to only have the number of children that is optimal for the U-index, which may turn out to be zero children.

We may find that caring for people with severe mental or physical illness causes a lot of unpleasantness. Government would need to do something about that. Perhaps incurable people should be killed or put into separate colonies, as was once done with lepers.

OK, of course Kling has exaggerated the issue right down a ridiculously steep and greased slippery slope. But it's to make a real point about the, ahem, undesirable tendency of people with utopian pretensions to want to remake society in their own vision.

It's especially, well, unpleasant that the people doing this are economists, which profession in certain incarnations has unleashed some mighty horrors into the halls of history by mixing economic theory with the idea of perfecting the state of humanity.

From Kling's column:

Perhaps the original sin here is to think of the economist's role as that of policy advocate. The policy advocate combines the job of a technician with that of a preacher (Robin Hanson made this point to me during a discussion that we had after hearing a talk from the economist Deidre N. McCloskey). The technician predicts the consequences of a policy. The preacher argues for the policy.

With research into subjective well-being, economists are making statements about what constitutes the good life. In doing so, we are encroaching on territory once claimed by philosophers and theologians -- and, more recently, by self-help gurus. In the 70's, it was I'm OK, You're OK. Now, we are saying "I have positive net affect, you have positive net affect."

Man, I can feel my U-index spiking as I type. But--please!!!--let me figure out how to manage that for myself, will you?