Tag Archives: Durkheim

Why economists don’t do happiness

Just last week my daughter told me that she was pregnant and it made me realise that there is a gaping hole at the centre of economics.  Economists state that anything that people value is to be considered as wealth. Yet there is an inconsistency according to this criteria  as much is missing from the lists of what economists classify as wealth. All those pleasures that mean so much, yet which cannot be ‘monetarised’ are ignored. Even if these many uncounted pleasures do add to the well being of an individual. Going back to my daughters pregnancy all an economist can tell me is the cost of bringing a child into the world and that the cost of their upbringing, will possibly to be offset by their later productivity as an adult. Only the negatives count, pleasure and happiness are missing from the economists index of wealth.

It is not that economists are unaware of the importance of happiness as part of the make up of an individuals well being, its just that they have no method of quantifying it, as they cannot count units of happiness, so they just ignore it.

The government has shown some awareness of this problem and they have produced a happiness index. They conduct social surveys to measure the happiness quotient. However there is always a great deal of cynicism about the project and its claim to have identified the happiest town are generally taken with a pinch of salt. Although the governments attempt to quantify happiness and to measure the overall level of happiness can be justified, as it does need to know the state of the nations well being. Yet it is of limited value, a recent international survey claimed that Norway was the happiest of countries. A survey dismissed by one Norwegian who said how can the introverted and anxious Norwegians be happier that the extroverted Greeks.

Although not a professional economist, George Osborne (former chancellor of the exchequer) he does belong in the category of ‘miserablilist’ economists, he made one of the most infamous statements about how human frivolity impacted badly on the economy. When a national holiday was given to celebrate the marriage of Prince William and Catherine Middleton, he bemoaned the lost productivity due to the people having an extra day’s holiday. He as a typical Gradgrind economist, could even give a spurious figure in billions for the estimated cost of lost output. Economists don’t do happiness or pleasure as it does contribute to a measurable increase in the nations wealth.  If it can’t measured it does not count. Economists have contributed a ‘miserablist’ mentality to the national consciousness.

Although I know of no studies of weddings by economists, they are one of those pleasurable occasions that consume large quantities of wealth and that appear to make little meaningful contribution to the nation’s wealth. Therefore they meet with their disapproval. Earlier this year my daughter got married and we spent a substantial sum of money on the occasion.  Economists would describe this as a  potlatch* like ceremony, a ceremonial practice in which the families give away substantial amounts of their wealth. This mood of disapproval infects the media, there are constant censorious articles about the nation’s excessive spending  on weddings. While I don’t intend to defend the spending of the rich, as when one rich young woman spent £12 million on her wedding, what I do want to defend is the spending of the average family on a wedding.

When I looked up the practice of potlatch on Wikipedia,  it reminded me that the practice was intended to strengthen social bonds within the tribal group. Exactly the same is true of contemporary weddings, they add glue to the social cohesion of society. My family is as so many in contemporary Britain an extended family. Social and economic change has dispersed the family across the country. Only at weddings and funerals do the family come together. Weddings being the more effective glue as they are a happy occasion and people are more willing to come together for such occasions. What such family get togethers do is to counter fissiparous tendencies of the free market. A largely unregulated free market such as that which is destructive of all social bonds. This destructiveness also has a cost but one that is never counted.

If I can give an example of this. Teaching was once a family friendly occupation, parental leave was generous compared to other occupations and the maternity leave was assured. However now the free market has been introduced to the education system, maternity leave is no longer celebrated. Losing an experienced teacher to either maternity or paternity leave is seen as taking a valuable asset out of the classroom. The management in schools are now uniformly hostile in their attitude to new parents. Now there is the obligatory out of school hours working that negatively impacts on childcare. Teachers are expected to put in several out of hours work both in school and out of it. When family life is put under such stress it makes breakdown of the family more likely. When 1  in 3 of new marriages end in divorce, the harsh economic and social system in the UK must be a large factor contributing to this.

Durkheim identified this sense of social isolation, which he called anomie, as significant factor that contributed to the individual committing the act of  suicide. Some doubt has been thrown on his research; but there is evidence that the loss of community is a factor in the development of mental and physical ill health in individuals. There is even some research that suggests that those who live alone are more likely to develop dementia. The cost of family and community break up is never costed. Michael Polanyi stated that the free market is a threat to social order. He wrote that the state should intervene to mitigate the worst effects of the free market. He believed that Britain only avoided revolution in the late eighteenth century, because all those thousands of hand loom weavers made unemployed by the factory system could get money from the parish with which to support themselves and their families. In France of the same period it was the unemployed and hungry poor who provided the muscle to overthrow the royalist system of government. They were the sans culottes who cheered the execution of the king.

While the free market in Britain has not created the misery equivalent to that, which the economic upheaval in the eighteenth century caused, it has wrecked damage on the social fabric. Why I as an economist celebrate the ‘excessive’ spending on weddings, is that it is the push back by families and individuals against the destructiveness of the free market system. Governments have  been complicit in this laying waste, removing employment protection laws and enabling the most unfriendly of family employment practices to become widespread. The government is now being forced to recognise the high cost of the free market unfriendly policies of business. Only recently it introduced a policy guaranteeing thirty hours of free child care at a nursery.  An inadequate and under funded child care programme, but least it’s a belated recognition of the problem. However it still remains hostile to those organisations and groups that resist the worst abuses of the free market.

In such a society when the government does little to prevent the divisive forces of the free market wreaking havoc on the social system, it is essential that there is some countervailing force that resists this most destructive of forces. The family is one such unit and the other is the local community. People need some security that comes from the feeling of belonging, something which a market of freely competing individuals does not offer. Although even the government is careless of the health of the family, doing little to offset the damage done to this social institution by the free market. Unlike the free marketeers of business and government, people see the family unit as being essential to their well being and will constant remake the family unit in whatever mutation. The family survives as an extended family, as family members are able to exploit new technology such as the smart phone to strengthen family links.

Economists fail to recognise that the free market can only prosper in an ordered society. A society of all against all is one that is going to fail.In a society whose raison d’etre is competitiveness and insecurity, it is left to the family to provide that sense of security and personal well being that is so essential of personal well being. This is why I value the wedding, as it celebrates the most essential of social units the family. For this economist long may families go on spending large sums on weddings as is a celebration of social togetherness, and as such it is the one remaining bulwark against the destructive individualism of the free market. Economists’ only  have the tools to celebrate production, they have no means of celebrating human happiness or togetherness. Simply put economists don’t do happiness and given their influence on politicians and policies their input into the political process can be very damaging.

*Potlatch a practice of giving away the families wealth, which could involve the destruction of such wealth. It was a custom practised by the Indians of Northwest USA and Canada. It was a practice designed to strengthen social bonds and to maintain social equality. No one individual was able to accumulate wealth and become the rich and powerful individual who would dominate tribal society.

Lies told by economists 2 – the economy is always managed so as to maximise the welfare of all

One of the constantly repeated stories told by economists is that the current programme of austerity is for the good of us all. The austerity programmes adopted by Western governments are necessary to root out from the economy of the excesses of the past spendthrift governments. The austerity programme will restore the economy to health and all will benefit from a new era of economic prosperity. A story that is so untrue, as acute observers will have noticed that it is the less well off who have suffered disproportionately in this recession, while the incomes of the better off have hardly been touched. Despite the recession, London for instance is home to a record number of billionaires.

There is another story that needs to be told and that is that economies very rarely work in a way that maximises the welfare of the majority of the population. They instead maximise the welfare of those groups with the greatest market power, who use that power to gain the largest share of wealth for themselves. Only very rarely does market power reside with the majority as happened in the social democracies of Europe after the Second World War.

This is demonstrated in the current time period which its one characterised as the time of Neo-Liberalism. A misnomer as it is a period that has seen the ever increasing accumulation of market power by the owners of capital at the expense of those who depend on earned incomes. Neo Liberalism is a political doctrine that these wealth holders have cleverly exploited to aid their rise to power. This doctrine states the the greatest impediments to the free market and the maximisation of wealth are over powerful governments and power trade unions, both of which impede the workings of the free market. Strong Governments and trade unions are the two factors that place obstacles in the path of those who wish to acquire unlimited wealth.

Growing up among the serving classes in the 1960’s, I observed close up the anxieties and fears that gave rise to the putsch against the strong governments and trade unions of the social democratic state. The 1960’s were a period of relative prosperity, there was full employment, constantly rising incomes and people were well housed, yet the rich hated this period. All they could see was the threat to their social and economic status from the newly prosperous working and middle classes. It seemed to them that all the barriers that preserved their social exclusiveness were under threat. Students from the working class now attended the two bastions of educational privilege, Oxford and Cambridge. Working people could own cars and more threateningly rise up the social and occupational ladder and threaten to displace the previous incumbents.


Tunbridge Wells and its environs where I grew up were home to exiled European aristocrats forced into exile by the communist revolutions of Europe. Travelling on local buses you would come across impoverished Eastern European aristocrats talking about their lost estates and wealth. I lived near a family of White Russians who were so worried about the possibility of a communist uprising that they were only family locally permitted to keep fire arms. It was this anxiety that fed into the paranoia of the wealthy who feared for their social position.


One of the most frequently expressed concerns was that people no longer knew their position. Servants would talk back to their masters and mistresses. The relative prosperity of the times meant it was difficult to get servants, as who would want the demeaning job of servant when a job a sales assistant in a shop gave gave greater freedom and a better wage. It was this newly acquired power to be no longer beholden to The Lord of the Manor for employment, that empowered servants. This group looked back to the horrors of the Great Depression as a ‘golden age. Then servants were plentiful and people knew their place. On the estate in which I lived prior to World War 11, it was a dismissal offence to talk without being first addressed by old Lord ***, now the very real shortage of estate workers and servants meant at worst all that could be done was reprimand the worker. I can remember a servant at the castle being reprimanded for being cheeky to her ladyship, an offence that would have warranted instant dismissal in the 1930’s. How the rich hated the prosperous sixties, with their indolent and independent minded workers.


Even in these social democratic times the rich had begun to regain their former powers. The setting up of trusts encouraged by a friendly judiciary enabled the aristocratic owners of the great estates, meant that these aristocrats could claim that their estates were held in perpetuity by a trust and therefore not subject to estate duties.

The determination of this group should never be underestimated, they worked constantly to weaken their two enemies over mighty governments and trade unions. Rather than going through the details of how they achieved this weakening it is sufficient to say that in their enterprise they were greatly aided by the naivety of social democratic politicians. Today the most powerful groups in society are the financial, business and landowning elites. Given the lack of restrictions on their power they are able to abuse that power to award themselves an increasingly disproportionate share of the nations wealth. In 2000 the average company directors pay in Britain’s top companies was 69 x that of the average employee and by 2009 it increased to 149x that of the average employee. This disproportionality in income take demonstrates why the British economic recovery will be good for the rich and the super rich but less good for the majority.

Economists fail because they see a society as one atomised individuals, who are best off if they can trade freely amongst themselves, as they individuals know what they want. Any intervention by a government no matter how well meaning, could not second guess the wants and wishes of individuals and they whatever they did would lead to people being more dissatisfied that satisfied. The only social group that they recognise are trade unions which they identify as malignant growth which disrupts the efficient running of the business enterprise. They never recognise that owners of capital might group together to abuse their market power to gain a disproportionate share of society’s wealth. For an economist bankers, financiers and land owners only act in a benign way for the benefit of society.

Society in reality is divided up into a number of social groups competing for power and wealth. This power and wealth is distributed disproportionately, the owners of capital compared to the owners of labour have disproportionate power. This disproportionality of power and its potential for harm was recognised in former times. Durkheim in the 19th century wrote of the essential role of the state to protect the individual from local bullies and tyrants. He knew that employers had unlimited power to abuse their workers, with their being no labour protection legislation, they could pay as little as possible, work them for long hours, subject them to unhealthy and unsafe working conditions and dismiss them if they fell sick. The state was needed to regulate conditions of employment and protect the worker against unfair exploitation by bad employers. A lesson forgotten by the current generation of economists and politicians.

I can as a child of the serving classes quote an example. A remember an old servant telling my mother of the bad country house in which she worked. The men of the house if a young pretty house maid took their fancy, they would abduct her and rape her in the cellars. Staff were powerless to intervene and the abusive males never faced any sanction. It is this story that springs to mind whenever I hear a politician or economist advocating the removal of yet more labour protections.

Today Britain is a country that is safe for the rich, but unsafe for the poor. The poor can be housed in unhealthy private rental homes for which they pay exorbitant rents and dare not complain for fear of eviction. A good government would legislate to prevent such tenants as recommended by Durkheim, instead we have a bad government, supported by bad parliamentarians of all major parties who would never countenance such a measure. In contrast the government does its best to make life comfortable for the rich by co-operating in all schemes to protect their wealth, most notably in the emasculation of the tax collecting agencies.