The Illusion of Well-being: Economic policymaking based on respect and responsiveness, by Mark White

Palgrave Macmillan, 2014, viii + 206 pp, pbk, 1 137 36466 1, £22

This short book, of an introduction and just four chapters has a clear agenda: that people’s interests are ‘complex, multifaceted, and subjective’ and that governments should therefore not attempt to influence how people should live their lives. That statement is on the first page of the book, which also recognises the legitimacy of governments providing ‘essential services such as education and health care’: something of an inconsistency, because, by choosing how our children are to be educated, governments are indeed deciding ‘how we should run our lives … though in a subtle way that is unlikely to inspire cries of government overreach and tyranny’ (p.1). But on the whole this is a consistent book, and the message is clear: that the author’s target is governments’ attempts to measure their citizens’ happiness, and their (broader) well-being, and to fashion policy accordingly. The problem is that no scale from 1 to 5 can capture the incommensurability of different people’s happiness or well-being, and no government can understand how each individual understands their own happiness, or their wellbeing,: so if a government employs a particular understanding of happiness or of well-being to inform social policy then it has ceased to respect people’s autonomy.

The book is full of economic arguments clearly expressed so that readers without any specialist economics knowledge will come away understanding some important economic theories and some of the problems related to them. So, for instance, Pareto improvement (which makes at least one person better off without making anybody else worse off) is criticised for allowing one person’s minor inconvenience to veto a policy that might benefit thousands; the connection between the satisfaction of an individual’s preferences and that individual’s and others’ well-being is shown to be far from simple; and the economist’s ‘utility’ concept is criticised for the same incomparability between individuals that the concepts of happiness and wellbeing suffer from.

White addresses a variety of questions: By happiness, do we mean a momentary emotional state, or long-term satisfaction with our situation in life? What do ‘happiness’ and ‘well-being’ actually mean ( – White offers psychological, economic and philosophical understandings)? And how might any particular measurement of happiness influence policy? (White’s discussion of the difference between total and average happiness would have benefited from an understanding that the mean and the median are both averages and that they mean different things.)

The first two chapters, on happiness and well-being, are the negative argument. The positive argument, on personal interests, begins in chapter 3. For White, ‘interests’ means ‘everything that matters to a person, everything that is of concern to him or her, and everything that motivates his or her decisions, choices, and actions’ (p.93). One’s interests relate to oneself, to other people, to one’s environment, to personal and societal values, and to much more besides, and a government’s task is to respect those interests rather than to impose some overall conception of well-being on people, or to care for people in some way – because any attempt to care has already decided what well-being might look like for the person cared for.

Given that governments do not know what people’s interests are, the appropriate tasks for governments are to ‘enable choice’ and to ‘respond to need’, with ‘need’ defined as the problems identified through democratic means (p.142): with the understandable proviso that a proper government task is to ensure that one person’s exercise of choice should not damage another person’s interests (p.152). The result is democratic and pragmatic government rather than ideological government.

There are some nice proofreading mistakes ( – ‘happiness’ certainly is ‘a notoriously different word to define’ than ‘justice’ or ‘beauty’, but the author probably means that it is a notoriously difficult word to define); the text sometimes veers too rapidly between chatty dialogue and complex logical argument; and the original text, written in the USA, has not been adapted for a British audience before being distributed in the UK: but these are minor quibbles.

What really is missing is case studies showing how in detail this approach to government would affect (and in fact does affect) policy-making. To take an example in which readers of this Newsletter might be interested: A benefits system that makes assumptions about the ways in which people should live (in terms of their employment, personal relationships, or anything else) is not a proper task for a government. This suggests that regulations relating to employment, relationships, or anything else, have no place in a benefits system, and that the only legitimate benefits system is a Citizen’s Income.