(Copied here for documentation purposes.)
Over on The World Bank OTAVIANO CANUTO solves for happiness by actively working against it.
We economists tend to see well-being, and poverty in particular, as a matter of finances and income. But fortunately, at least in the Bank, we have come a long way from that simplistic view. Reducing poverty is not only about increasing productivity and income. It is about enabling people to have a broad sense of well-being and opportunities to express and make choices about their lives.
But, the road to economic Hades is paved with good intentions:
A) Happiness comes from having choices. Choices come from having the resources to make choices. The resources to make choices come from marginally competitive production. What we usually celebrate, and should logically celebrate, is our success in having obtained the ability to have choices by our efforts at production, and therefore to spend some of our gains on social goods, such as redistribution, celebrations, and creating works of art that commemorate our success.
B) Many things that make us happy are actually not good for us. They are just familiar, easy, or provide pleasant stimulus. Foods, Drugs, Mystical Religion. Many things that are desirable are economically dangerous over the long term. The certainty of empire, the sentiment of egalitarianism, fiat money, free trade, and the state itself are all things that help make us happy in some way – but they have consequences that may not.
C) In history, the transformation of the political dialog from utilitarian and empirical management, to moral arguments in Western Christendom, in Confucian China, in Muslim Afro-Asia, resulted, in each case, with the stagnation, decline, and poverty of the civilization. The existing arguments for the fall of civilizations, Diamond’s theories included, are false. Civilizations decline because their calculative and cooperative institutions fall under the pressure of overpopulation. In other words, as they got larger, they did not expand property rights, develop new forms of money, and accounting, and courts to assist in conflict resolution that resulted in a pricing system that incorporated long term forecasting based on the knowledge of individuals who were planning for the future because they were incentivized to maintain their productive assets.
D) Cultural memes and their historical narratives, in many cultures, are often destructive. The Asian principle of ‘Face’, the Steppe’s tribal brotherhood, Islam’s concept of dignity and the “Tolerance” of Christendom can both be considered virtues, but are extremely destructive concepts because they are means avoidance of conflict resolution, each of which has it’s own economically hazardous side effects, and therefore a near infinite discount on happiness. Plane crashes and nuclear disasters are the result of Face saving. Inability to form political institutions the result of tribal brotherhood. The inability to form a competitive middle class the result of dignity – unearned social status. Repeated economic failure of political and economic systems due to excess unearned immigration, inclusion, and redistribution.
E) Most of are architectural works, across all cultures, are the result of achieving empires by way of military conquest. That is the purpose of architecture, and its symbolism. Most of our literature, is the literature of rebellion – an appeal by the losing side for political inclusion as in Dante, or a sentimental appeal for redistribution. Most of our political rhetoric from the false democratic propaganda of Athens to the post-war self destructive nihilism of europe is simply false under critical analysis.
If you want to be a priest, join a church. If you want to move people run for office. If you want to celebrate, join a club. If you want to be a scientist, and to better mankind, stick with pragmatic improvement of the material well being of individuals by consciously upgrading their cooperative institutions so that they are ‘calculable’ and rational rather than political and sentimental. In other words, don’t make the problem worse by celebrating the ends, rather than the means.
The happiness of man has been achieved by increases in the institutional ability for people to break up the world into little objects and apply increasingly fragmentary knowledge to the satisfaction of the wants of others outside of his or her social circle, and independent of his or her cultural memes, by using the information provided by the pricing system, and by the predictability created by institutional protections for his or her risk taking.
Sentimental talk in economics and in politics is destructive and always has been. It is evidence of the failure of the political system utilized by the group making the statements. People on the ascent make arguments to productive group action – they ask us to pay opportunity costs for a collective end, for the purpose of increasing potential productive security.
By contrast, all moral arguments are by definition false. And that’s the reality of it. Our job is to be the one academic discipline, and the one social science, that isn’t solving for the satisfaction of humanity’s tribal sentiments despite their natural conflict with a division of knowledge and labor and the pricing system, but that solves for the truth of what makes people actually happy by giving them choices.
Humans want a discount. Always. So when you’re trying to determine if your arguing for conviction or convenience, make sure you’re not just looking for the discount that comes from embracing convenience. If you want to celebrate. Celebrate both the means – institutions of calculation and cooperation, and their happy ends.
(Now that I’ve been a wet blanket I’m going to go celebrate the day with family.)