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Yes, of course governments should target happiness

Summary:
It’s an odd question even for people to ask, whether governments should target happiness or GDP. The answer is so obvious that why even bother to ponder it, happiness is the point:Is the relentless reach for economic growth coming at the expense of our personal happiness and well-being? It is a question that is being asked around the world and has even inspired part of the Liberal Democrat manifesto. It has proposed a "well-being budget" that would base decisions on factors in addition to growth, an idea borrowed from New Zealand.Iceland’s Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir also revealed on Tuesday that her country will be the latest to focus on well-being over gross domestic product (GDP).“An Icelandic poet actually said famously that having sex with your wife does not count in GDP but

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It’s an odd question even for people to ask, whether governments should target happiness or GDP. The answer is so obvious that why even bother to ponder it, happiness is the point:

Is the relentless reach for economic growth coming at the expense of our personal happiness and well-being?

It is a question that is being asked around the world and has even inspired part of the Liberal Democrat manifesto. It has proposed a "well-being budget" that would base decisions on factors in addition to growth, an idea borrowed from New Zealand.

Iceland’s Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir also revealed on Tuesday that her country will be the latest to focus on well-being over gross domestic product (GDP).

“An Icelandic poet actually said famously that having sex with your wife does not count in GDP but having sex with a prostitute does so that should really make us think,” she joked...

The answer to that little conundrum being that the roughly 2 to 3% of men who regularly use prostitutes (a reasonable estimate, lifetime incidence is usually measured at around 10%) find that their happiness is so enhanced, the other 97% do not. Which is that vital clue to what the pursuit or targeting of happiness should actually be about.

As economists keep pointing out, utility - not the same as happiness itself but the jargon for something similar - is an entirely personal thing. There are, after all, those who appreciate Simon Cowell. To target happiness is thus to be allowing the maximal freedom to all to maximise their own utility.

That is, happiness maximisation means the classically liberal state where intervention is only allowed, let alone justified, when the pursuit limits the ability of another to so pursue.

We having an nice little example of this too:

Almost every worker in the country is happy with the terms of their employment, despite the rise of "gig" work and a long-running row over zero-hours contracts.

Around 99pc of workers across Britain are satisfied with their contract according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), with very minor variations depending on the type of employment. For example, this falls to 97pc for men in part-time jobs.

It is further evidence that the common opinion that zero-hours agreements are rampant and unpopular is false. The contracts offer flexibility to around 900,000 workers and their employers, but have become the focus of much political criticism in recent years.

Leave people alone to get on with things as they’ll pursue their own happiness as well as is possible within the constraints of physical reality. At which point, well, job done, isn’t it?

That is, the secret to the political maximisation of happiness is that politics and politicians potter off and do something else - preferably nothing - other than defend the rights of the citizenry to the pursuit of happiness and leave the rest of us to the delights of chacun a son gout.

That this is also the method of GDP maximisation is just a happy circumstance.



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Tim Worstall
Tim Worstall is a British-born writer and Senior Fellow of the Adam Smith Institute. Worstall is a regular contributor to Forbes and the Register. He has also written for the Guardian, the New York Times, PandoDaily, the Daily Telegraph blogs, the Times, and The Wall Street Journal. In 2010 his blog was listed as one of the top 100 UK political blogs by Total Politics.

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