Ed Glaeser on Utility, Freedom, and Happiness

Harvard’s Ed Glaeser essay in this month’s Cato Unbound is fresh this morning. He says lots of interesting things, but I thought I’d pick out this bit, which concerns my pet issues:

A belief in the value of liberty flows strongly through mainstream neoclassical economics. Economists frequently speak about an aim of maximizing utility levels, and this is often mistranslated as maximizing happiness. Maximizing freedom would be a better translation. The only way that economists know that utility has increased is if a person has more options to choose from, and that sounds like freedom to me. It is this attachment to liberty that makes neoclassical economists fond of political liberty and making people richer, because more wealth means more choices.

There is a recent wave of scholarship suggesting that the government can help individuals be happy by reducing their choices. While happiness may be a very nice thing, it is neither the obvious central desiderata for private or public decision-making. On a private level, I make decisions all that time that I expect to lower my level of happiness, because I have other objectives. On a public level, I can’t imagine why we would want to privilege this emotion over all other goals. A much better objective for the state is to aim at giving people the biggest range of choices possible, and then let people decide what is best for them.

Excellent. I sometimes call Glaeser’s argument, and arguments like it, “the economist’s folk theorem for the morality of growth.” You end up with things like the “Easterlin Paradox,” if you get confused about the meaning of “utility” and think bigger choice sets are supposed to entail greater happiness. But Glaeser isn’t the least bit confused. I find his version of the economist’s folk theorem enormously compelling.