Saturday, 7 August 2004

Eppur si muove

Over at Flack Central Station, conservative economist Arnold Kling sees a nefarious plot in the new survey-based happiness research, pioneered by Nobel Prize winners Daniel Kahneman and Vernon Smith.

Referring to the paper How Not to Buy Happiness by Cornell economist Robert Frank, Kling writes:

... [I]t is Robert Frank who wants to impose a rigid conformity on our mode of living. In his model society everyone would commute by mass transit to work. So much for people who like to work from home, or live in a rural environment, or walk to work.

I am afraid that “happiness research” amounts to nothing but a flimsy excuse for left-wing academics to claim that they should be given control over how the rest of us live.

Kling doesn't bother mentioning that Frank makes no public policy recommendations in his paper. The paper could just as well be taken as personal advice to individuals: a Lexus won’t make you any happier than a Honda; you’ll be happier if you buy a smaller house close to where you work, instead of a large house far away; no one ever wished on his death bed that he’d spent more time at the office.

The most interesting passage in Kling’s essay is the following bit:

In making his case, Frank places a heavy intellectual burden on "happiness research." As I have pointed out before, economists traditionally have not bothered to try and measure happiness. We take it for granted that people act in their best interests.

Frank, on the other hand, takes seriously the notion that happiness can be measured by surveys. He views the fact that surveys show little increase in happiness over the past few decades as evidence that higher incomes do not lead to more happiness.

Frank’s problem, according to Kling, is that he takes new evidence seriously. Kling, on the other hand, is a virtuous economist who never questions traditional assumptions.

Kling reminds me of the Catholic priests railing against the Copernican revolution in astronomy:

It upsets the whole basis of theology. If the Earth is a planet, and only one among several planets, it can not be that any such great things have been done specially for it as the Christian doctrine teaches. If there are other planets, since God makes nothing in vain, they must be inhabited; but how can their inhabitants be descended from Adam? How can they trace back their origin to Noah's ark? How can they have been redeemed by the Saviour? (From the Wikipedia article on Galileo.)

Like the Catholic priests in the 17th century, Kling's world-view is upset by new evidence, and he'll add epicycle upon epicycle to preserve his central assumption.

(Hat tip to Marginal Revolution.)