The Political Pursuit of Happiness: A Popperian Perspective on Layard’s Happiness Policy
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For Richard Layard, happiness should constitute the guiding principle of public policy. However, it remains unclear whether there is a convincing justification for such kinds of happiness policies. To shed some light on this issue, Layard’s battle against status competition for enhancing happiness is evaluated by applying a Popperian perspective. That is, we apply Popper’s evaluation scheme by determining whether Layard’s position meets four criteria derived from Karl Popper’s philosophy. At the normative level, status competition cannot be considered only a social vice, but also a social virtue. At the epistemological level, Layard’s policy advice seems problematic, as it is based on the assumption that the government is able to differentiate between positive and negative incentives arising from status competition. Regarding the political level, Layard argues that counteracting the effects of the status race is a major objective of public policy. Layard is optimistic that the issue of consensus among citizens can be solved, but it remains unclear whether this optimism is justified. He is also confident that the problems of implementation can be overcome. However, there may be a general incompatibility between the level of coercion and status competition, since the latter is deeply rooted in human nature. To sum up, there is neither a convincing argument for stricter measures to combat status competition, nor does political enforcement seem feasible with voters who presumably suffer from ‘false’ preferences. Moreover, there is no clear-cut normative argument to combat status competition from a Popperian perspective. As a more general result, a reorientation of public policy towards happiness, as recommended by Layard, does not seem advisable.
KeywordsPolitics and the pursuit of happiness Layard’s happiness policy Happiness and public policy Happiness of the community Economic happiness research Happiness-related indicators of national well-being Karl Popper
The authors thank Johnny Søraker for his most instructive and concise comments on this paper. A previous version of this paper was presented at the Meeting of the European Public Choice Society 2011 in Rennes and at the conference ‘Well-Being in Contemporary Society’ (wics 2012), University of Twente, 2012. The authors also wish to thank the participants at their respective conference sessions and especially Martin Rode and two anonymous referees. The authors are additionally grateful to Brian Bloch for his comprehensive editing of the manuscript. The usual disclaimer applies with regard to the content.
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