Effective Policy and the Measurement of Human Well-Being

Economists Andrew Oswald and Andrew Branchflower begin a very interesting new NBER paper [$$$] on the relationship between levels of self-reported happiness and blood levels with this dubious claim:

For effective social and economic policies to be designed, it is necessary for policymakers to be able to measure human well-being.

They better hope they’re wrong, because if they’re right, then effective social and economic policy cannot be designed! Oh no! 

Why? Two reasons:

(1) Human well-being, as opposed to the several dimensions or components of well-being, is pretty much impossible to measure.

Why? Because the specific nature of human well-being is relative to the individual and the components of well-being are diverse and must often be traded against one another. 

What does this mean? Let’s start with the relativity of well-being. The achievement of valued aims (meaningful goals, important personal projects, whatever you’d like to call it) is a component of human well-being if anything is. However, the content of valued aims varies from person to person. It follows pretty straightforwardly that the specific requirements of well-being vary from person to person.

(For those of you on the lookout for the scourge of “post-modernist relativism,” please note that this kind of “relativism” is in fact a kind of relativism, and is also completely innocuous, entailed by the uncontroversial fact that different people have different personalities, different tastes, and different “callings.”)

Next, consider the diversity of the components of well-being and the potential conflicts between them. Health and longevity are components of well-being if anything is. But so is the individual achievement of valued aims. Some people’s perfectly reasonable aims  may be incompatible with maximizing their health and longevity. Imagine a cholesterol-saturated gourmand who would rather die than give up his foie gras, or an adventurer who draws profound meaning from facing down life-threatening challenges. So… how much weight do we give to one component of well-being —  health and longevity, say — relative to another — for example, the achievement of valued aims that conflict with maximal health and longevity? The answer is that there is no answer — no answer science and empirical evidence compels us all to agree on, at any rate.

The upshot, then, is that while we can measure various dimensions or components of well-being — whether it be health and longevity, the experience of pleasure, a sense of self-efficacy and control, the development of basic human capacities, or the achievement of valued aims — we cannot measure well-being as a whole because Mother Nature has nowhere posted a table of exchange rates between the various values that compose individual welfare. It’s simply not out there for the scientist to find.

Now, there may be a rough cultural consensus at any time and place about the relative weight to place on competing individual welfare-constituting values. But this consensus, to the extent that there is one, has to be discovered, and changes as time goes by. So, at this point, we’re not “measuring well-being” so much as attempting to find some bit of overlap if people’s conceptions of well-being. We can use the overlap to base a few general principles of mutually beneficial social interaction almost everyone will be willing to affirm. But the larger and more diverse the society, the smaller and more general the overlap. There are always broad swathes of often heated disagreement in pluralistic societies. And that’s what principles and institutions of liberal neutrality are for: to peacefully accommodate the inevitable lack of consensus about questions of value in open, cosmopolitan societies.

Would you say that a set of policies were “effective” if it peacefully and stably coordinated the behavior of millions of individuals in pursuit of their valued aims, and constantly increased their capacity to to realize them, despite the fact that there are as many conceptions of well-being as there are people?  Would you consider such a set of policies “effective” even if we didn’t know how to measure human well-being scientifically? 

(2) Policymakers have no incentive to accurately measure human well-being — even if it was accurately measurable — or to appoint, or take counsel from, those who do.

Lucky for them, Branchflower and Oswald begin their paper with a monumental falsehood. Their introductory proposition implies, among other things, that effective social and economic policy never has been designed! Their general idea, I take it, is that in order to design something effective, you have to be able to measure “effectiveness.” [Edited: Erased gibberish not meant to be publish. Added rest of para, which was meant to be published.] The problem is understanding “well-being maximizing” as equivalent to “effective.” The difference between aggregation-obsessed consequentialists and coordination-obsessed consequentialists lies in accepting or rejection that equivalence. 

I think my considerations (1) and (2) imply that not only does effective policy not require that policymakers are able to definitively measure well-being, but that effective policy is much more likely if we fully grasp the indisputable empirical facts that conceptions of well-being (and of “effective”) are plural (and this is so whether or not I am right on the philosophical point that the constitution of well-being for each individual requires trade-offs between different dimensions of well-being) and that policymakers are neither scientists nor reliable consumers of science. 

Maybe it is disappointing to social scientists — frustrating even! — to face up to the fact that no interest or competence in social science whatsoever is required for a hugely successful career as a policymaker, which is to say, as a politician or bureaucrat. This is even the case in places where social science flourishes most! Disappointing as that fact may be, social scientists may want to take it into account when  thinking about the design of effective policy.