07 April 2015

The promises and limitations of ‘gross national happiness’

Cross-posted from Solidarity Hall:

For those of us who enjoy critiquing the ‘neoclassical synthesis’, homo œconomicus and its associated flattenings of personhood in all its depth, the concept of ‘gross national happiness’, pioneered by former Dragon-King (now King-Father) Jigme Singye Wangchuck of Bhutan, has long been considered a corrective worthy of at least some interest. For one thing, it is a culturally-specific, religiously-informed understanding of what constitutes ‘happiness’. The study makes the very interesting presumption that for a person to be psychologically healthy, they have to be spiritually active and devote regular time to prayer and meditation. Trust of neighbours, a sense of belonging to the community, family ties and monetary donation to charity are counted as contributing to individual happiness. In assessing education the study places a high priority on local knowledge: knowledge of folklore, legends, traditional songs and religious festivals (tshechu). Not only this, but participation – for example, through attending cultural festivals and practising a traditional artisanal craft – is considered a vital factor in ‘gross national happiness’!

Some critics of ‘gross national happiness’, like The New Republic’s Deirdre McCloskey, argue that the concept is unscientific. To a certain extent, this is true; many of the indicators which go into the index – but certainly not all! – are qualitative rather than quantitative. But this observation obscures some of the presumptions. Though McCloskey acknowledges the role that a Benthamite understanding of ‘happiness’ necessarily plays in the entire project of economics, she still wants to argue from a perspective that claims a scientific legitimacy for the discipline. Very carefully she treads up to the central question – ‘Bentham, carrying his happiness meter under his arm,’ she illustrates, ‘strides like a ghost through economistic talk’ – but she then immediately retreats to the compromised presumption of the scientific prestige of economics in its neoclassical reinvention as she lambasts the people who are trying to unpack its central conceit. In her stunningly-prolix rebuttal (in which she manages to meaninglessly name-drop practically everyone from Zhuangzi and Aristotle to de Tocqueville and Amartya Sen for what one would imagine is the not-so-demanding purpose of debunking the idea) she repeatedly caricatures the King-Father and his followers as ‘1-2-3 hedonicists’, Benthamite utopians of the worst possible sort who want to transform a subjective report of personal well-being into an objective basis for policymaking. But the irony that this scientific posturing obscures, is that she does exactly the same thing: only that, instead of a self-reported scale of 1 to 3, we have instead an ‘objective’ increase in income which in McCloskey’s view ought to correspond to whatever increased capacity the earner has to dispose of it.

After all, if we have no ‘scientific’ reason to trust the self-report of an individual’s understanding of her own happiness on a survey, then how does it follow that we can ‘scientifically’ trust the self-report of that same someone’s understanding of her own happiness as it is expressed through the disposal of income in a market? Having $125 a day rather than $3 a day is surely meaningful insofar as one has enough to take care of his family’s basic needs, but beyond that, how is his spending it any more meaningful than his ticking off a 1, a 2 or a 3 on a survey form? Either way, we are actually approaching a ‘black box’ of subjective individual motivations. The entire conceit of neoclassical economics is that individual human behaviour is understandable, that it is rational, that it is aimed at maximising ‘happiness’ however the individual understands it – and therefore that it can be predicted according to ‘scientific’ laws! As we can see, modern neoclassical economics and the ideology of liberal democratic capitalism which it is used to bolster, are both content for the most part to hide the black box behind Oz’s curtain.

Unfortunately, McCloskey has no basis – and implicitly asks us to trust her that it is the case – that an enlightened happiness, corresponding with self-improvement and practice of the classical virtues, is made more accessible and easier by having a higher income (and by having that meddlesome, taxing, nudging, compelling government safely out of the way). Her evidence, such as it is, is that modern museums, concert halls and libraries are fuller. But using Nozick’s ‘experience machine’ argument again against McCloskey: if we take it as given that none of us would choose to live out another, happier person’s life rather than our own, why on earth should a healthy society take greater delight in the artefacts of other societies’ past experiences (whether exhibited or performed or read) than in its own? Why are museum-pieces to be valued above folk culture? Surely this is a reflection of some kind of pathology in the way we relate to our own past? I live in China, and I’ve been to the Qingming Riverside Landscape Garden in Kaifeng. Magnificent though the entire project is, visiting an elaborately-reconstructed museum of traditional Chinese culture is not the same thing as actually living in a Chinese family or community, and my wife’s own moderately-expressed ambivalence over the entire project (‘well, at least it’s ours’), speaks volumes to me. Surely there is greater value in actually taking part in one’s own village’s tshechu than there is in merely observing the performance of one!

So if there is a central value in King-Father Jigme Singye Wangchuck’s ‘gross national happiness’ measure, it is not in its use of qualitative measures. It is that it does attempt in some measure to unpack the black box in a way which articulates some real measure of shared value. It attempts (for better or for worse) to inject some measure of personality and personhood, situated in real communities and histories, back into the discipline of economics. Solzhenitsyn once warned in his novel Cancer Ward against the idea of guiding people toward happiness, ‘because happiness too is an idol of the market-place; one should guide them instead toward mutual affection’. Solzhenitsyn’s objection, then, has something to do with happiness having been abstracted away from the project of living a life in communion, of trusting one’s family and neighbours, of doing things together with them, of creating things of shared value within one’s community.

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