catallaxy files

catallaxy in technical exile

Hamilton's politics of wellbeing

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Whether or not Clive Hamilton offers good electoral advice to the ALP, for me at least the more interesting issue is whether or not his basic critique of market society has anything to it. For those without the inclination to read Growth Fetish or Affluenza, Hamilton’s social democracy Quarterly Essay summarises his basic arguments. Much of it remains very unconvincing.

For example, in referring to the surveys carried out in Western societies asking people how they feel about life Hamilton says that ‘it has become clear that they are not happy in themselves’ (p.54)’ and that ‘the richest people in the world are saying that they are miserable’ (p.55). Neither statement is correct. On a 0-10 scale, average happiness and life satisfaction is consistently between 7 and 8. Andrew Leigh has written a paper (pdf) which has international comparisions. It’s possible to argue (as Hamilton does in detail elsewhere) that increasing material wealth hasn’t increased happiness. But it is not possible to say with an empirical basis that people are typically unhappy.

Hamilton links this to the research ‘pointing out that materialistic people are less happy’ (p.55). Yet the evidence is generally against the idea that the kind of materialism we need to worry about, being preoccupied with money at the expense of activities and relationships of more intrinsic value, is on the rise. I detailed some of this in my critique (pdf) of Affluenza.

There is also a tension between Hamilton’s arguments on this and his analysis of consumer culture. He argues, plausibly enough, that a lot of consumption these days is not just about satisfying material needs or even of ‘acquiring status through displays of wealth’ but ‘creating the self through association with certain brands and products’ (p.38). Psychologically, I think this is quite different to ‘materialism’. Often our consumption choices will be part of associating ourselves with others: to please or attract partners, or to demonstrate or signal that we are part of a group or sub-culture. It is to do with relationships rather than being ‘better’ than others or a preoccupation with things in themselves (though I do think that ascetics like Clive underestimate the pleasures of consumption, how material things can taste, look and feel good, on top of their functional value).

Hamilton claims that there is an ‘inexorable process of converting wants into “needs”‘ (p.57), and ‘the rise in expectations or aspirations puts pressure on people to work longer and harder and this comes at the cost of their personal relationships’ (p.58). As I have noted before concern about work-life balance is showing in the polls, but the purported costs are not evident in statistics on either relationship breakdown or satisfaction with relationships. The empirical evidence suggests the opposite of what Hamilton argues and most people would intuitively think – that there is almost an inverse relationship between theoretical time for social contact and actual levels of social connectedness. Part of the explanation for concerns about work-life balance despite actual good results can I think be found in the distinciton between wants and needs. While people may want more time with partners, kids, friends etc, they have enough to maintain the connections.

Given these erroneous assumptions, unsurprisingly it is not true either that ‘in rich countries increased consumption is now associated with declining well-being’ (p.58). Every survey ever done shows that on average wealthy people have higher well-being than poor people, and the differences would be even starker if we took out the elderly, who manage relatively high well-being despite below-average incomes (perhaps because with no dependents and their homes paid off their monetary needs are relatively low, maybe too the lower expectations of people who grew up in a less prosperous time). High consumption can be a symptom of other problems (for example, shopaholics tend to have pre-existing psychological issues) or can trigger financial strain. But this is individual foolishness, not an inherent link with consumption. As Hamilton rightly argues earlier in his essay (pp. 21-9) we shouldn’t feel too sorry for wealthy people who think that they are ‘battlers’ or have made a decision to live beyond their means.

If Hamilton was writing self-help books I wouldn’t have much of a quarrel with him. Though I think he is mistaken about the aggregate social statistics, some people don’t have their priorities right, and would be better off working and consuming less and spending more time with family and friends. But the trade-offs between these things are so complex that they are unsuited to the political solutions he proposes.

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Written by Admin

March 12, 2006 at 12:12 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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