Sen on Layard

Amartya Sen's forthcoming new book, An Idea of Justice, takes aim at Lord Layard's emphasis on subjective reports of how happy we're feeling as a guide to public policy.

He says, in an interview with The Times:

I do think that by concentrating on all Bentham and no Mill, he does make a mistake. Freedom has many dimensions that are not captured in the pleasure statistics. We are not pleasure machines.

The problem with “happiness” as sole measure is that you may think yourself happy, but in fact be stymied. You may indeed adjust to your deprivation, as some slaves might have been “happier” on the plantation than free in the difficult outside world.

In his book, Sen instances the contrast between the Indian states of Kerala and Bihar. In Kerala morbidity is lower but concerns about morbidity are higher. Ideas and education that help to reduce morbidity in Kerala make the population more aware of it, so ignorance is bliss of a kind.

And the notion of income inequality being per se almost the sole measure of justice is problematic too.

These statistics have all kinds of impurities. If you’re asked how happy are you, the answer is exactly informative as to what you would say if somebody asked you how happy you are. It doesn’t tell anyone whether you’re really happy or not.

People can get very discontented when they’re very successful. And the sad thing is that people actually do adjust if they’re very deprived. I spent 15 years working on famine and it’s amazing how happy famine victims are when they ultimately get a meal. But that doesn’t mean people are generally more deprived than a famine victim having a first meal.