An economist in pursuit of pleasure

Abstractions are not the usual grist of these specialists, and this one has barked up the wrong tree, says Stephen Bayley.

by Stephen Bayley, an author and design consultant


Richard Layard

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I would not ask an economist to cook dinner. The cold calculus of the economist's discipline does not equip them to make fine judgments about charm, taste and beauty. Economics knows no way of distinguishing between a Chateau Cheval Blanc and Lambrusco, other than by price. Which is really not the issue. Except to an economist it is.

And then there is their infuriating complacency. Never mind that no economist has ever in the history of the world got anything right, they insist on assuming an overbearing authority. When the affairs of man fail to match the economist's model, as they always do, the economist will say that man has erred while the model remains correct. We have a word for that sort.

Yet after 200 years of getting it so badly wrong, of causing revolutions, of empowering bad government with credible falsehoods, of putting price in front of pleasure, cost before value, of giving us ... Gordon Brown, here is an economist addressing an abstraction.

Richard (Lord) Layard was the founder of the Centre for Economic Performance at the LSE. An expert on unemployment and inequality, his new book is Happiness. Layard, whose prose style feels like a draft IMF description of narcolepsy, proves how ill-equipped economists are to deal with the unquantifiable. He doesn't write well.

Happiness is the latest in a slew of formulaic books that blur the publishing categories of self-help, pop therapeutics, management and trend-spotting.

Of these, Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point (2000) has been the most interesting and successful. But Layard is more in tune with other recent American publishing successes: Gregg Easterbrook's The Progress Paradox or Barry Schwartz's The Paradox of Choice - although neither book appears in his bibliography.

Nor does Layard seem to know another significant precursor: in 1990, the anthropologist Lionel Tiger published The Pursuit of Pleasure, an account much richer in observation, fact and nuance.

Layard's context is the decline of religion and the failure of socialism (a secular religion) to compensate for the emotional loss. And after socialism failed, consumerism was the vehicle designed to deliver happiness. As with Naomi Klein's No Logo, there is a residual low-church anti-materialism in him. I'm with Janis Joplin when she sang 'Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes-Benz?' I've driven a crapheap and I know a 500SL makes me happier.

Layard's scepticism about consumerism has many antecedents, all more interesting than Layard.

Oliver Goldsmith, for instance, who in The Deserted Village (1770) said: 'The greatest riches is ignorance of wealth'; John Ruskin, who said: 'Every new possession loads us with a new weariness'; and Daniel Boorstin, who in The Image (1962) wrote: 'Nearly everything we do to enlarge our world, to make life more interesting, more varied, more exciting, more "fabulous", more promising, in the long run, has an opposite effect.'

The cultural dimension is lost on Layard, whose historical reference is Jeremy Bentham's utilitarianism, with its tenet of 'the greatest happiness of the greatest number'.

Layard deals with classic socio-economic territory. Work, income and family life are his concerns, but he also has passages on depression and drugs. In the matter of depression, the late Anthony Storr is a more stimulating guide. His touching and culturally rich observations about the tormented personalities of creative types make Layard's passing comment on Edvard Munch seem slight.

And while Happiness makes some claim to being part of a 'new science', we should expect more important developments in the life sciences rather than the social sciences. The evolutionary biologist Armand-Marie Leroi (author of Freaks, 2004) speaks with authority of the emerging discipline of neuro-aesthetics, wherein science will be able to isolate the technical sources of delight.

Happiness is - of course - a good idea, but this is a mediocre book.

Layard is aware of the paradox of happiness. You cannot strive to be happy.

Peace comes, Michelangelo believed, when you no longer yearn for it. Ditto happiness. Again, a creative artist gets it better than an economist. Alberto Moravia thought (in a novel about depression) we are at our happiest when we do not realise it. I was not at my happiest reading this book.

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