Towards an economics of unhappiness
For at least the last decade, there has been a boom in work on the economics of happiness. But following Tolstoy, I’ve always wondered why we don’t study the economics of unhappiness instead: after all, there’s so much more data.
For the last year or so, I’ve been planning a paper in which I took off from this point and made the case for unhappiness as a driver of economic activity and particularly of economic change (including ‘growth’). But, as usually happens with my thoughts along these lines, it looks as if someone has beaten me to it.
Chris pointed me to this piece by Stefano Bartolini, which argues that people strive to increase their wealth as a response to the negative externalities generated by positional externalities and the destruction of social capital.
I’ve also been reading a translation of Sedlacek’s Economics of Good and Evil, a surprise hit in the original Czech, which discusses many of the same issues, focusing on the contrast between the economics of the ancients and that of Adam Smith.
I have a more positive take on unhappiness. It’s possible, I think, to want something better than what you have (for many different values of “better”) without being actively miserable. In a world where change, both good and bad, is inevitable, cultivating a position of stoical detachment seems to me to be something of a copout[5}
fn1. Tolstoy had his own economic ideas, which drew (not surprisingly for the time, and for a dissident landowner on Henry George)
fn2. Growth, like GDP is a tremendously unsatisfactory and misleading concept when dealing with complicated economic aggregates, some components increasing and others decreasing. But that’s another post.
fn3. Often by a fair stretch of time, as I’m very slack about reading the literature. I was very pleased with my discovery of Ramsey’s Rule of Saving until I discovered that Ramsey had got there first.
fn4. To translate from the economese, the fact that some social benefits depend more on your relative position than your absolute wealth means that if one person becomes better off, others are worse off.
fn5. Does this useful slang term have an equivalent in formal English? I can’t think of one that isn’t a paraphrase.