Benjamin Marks, author of a critique of happiness analysis and a review of Gittinomics, and Economics.org.au editor: Thank you, Mr Gittins, for making your views available to Economics.org.au readers, and supporting our new venture to educate Australians about economics, which you have been trying to do so passionately for so long.

In your new book, The Happy Economist (Allen & Unwin, 2010), you list many areas that are not done as well as you think they should be, including limits on advertising (p. 230), limits on positional goods (p. 2301), supermarkets (p. 236), limits on shift work (p. 240) and parental leave (p. 241). Why do you think government should interfere with market provision of these areas?

Ross Gittins, author of Gittinomics and The Happy Economist, and prolific veteran newspaper columnist: “[B]ecause individuals know they have trouble controlling themselves and would appreciate government taking temptation out of their way” (pp. 174-75, repeated at p. 232).

Editor: I know of many individuals who disagree with this, and I am one of them. What right do you have to limit what I do? What legal theory do you follow? And if individuals really do have trouble resisting temptation, then why, when they say they want government to do something, do you, all of a sudden, not consider that another case of individuals lacking self-control? Doesn’t government consist of these same individuals who submit to temptation? In other words, how does government escape from the problem you attribute to individuals and claim government intervention would prevent?

Gittins: “There’s little controversy over the proposition that happiness is a matter for the individual. If a person wants to pursue it that’s their right and how they go about it is a matter for them provided they stay within the law. Alternatively, if happiness doesn’t strike them as a worthy goal for their lives, that’s their right too” (p. 4, repeated at p. 219).

Editor: Then why, in the next paragraph, do you say: “More controversial is the question of whether governments should get involved in promoting the happiness of their populations” (p. 4, repeated at p. 219)? Either it is controversial, or it isn’t. Either it is a matter for the individual to decide for themselves, or for the government to decide for them. You can’t have it both ways.

Gittins: “It’s not the existence of markets but the adulation of The Market that’s questionable” (p. 182).

Editor: But you are proposing limitations on the existence of markets.2

Gittins: [No comment.]

Editor: That seems a pretty big issue to totally ignore. I think that coming to terms with it is very important. You seem to, from page one, create a false dichotomy between the individual and government. For example, you open the book by saying that “This is a book about happiness. It says a lot about the practical things we can do as individuals to live happier lives and about what government could do to help us in that” (p. 1). Can you please expand on what you think are the differences between individuals and government — that is, between voluntarily-funded associations of individuals and coercively-funded (governmental) associations of individuals?

Gittins: [No comment.]

Editor: Well, moving on, what do you think of economics?

Gittins: It is “the dominant ideology of our times, with its supreme goal of unending growth in production and consumption” (p. 5).

Editor: I find it surprising that anyone would think that economics is the dominant ideology of our times. Even so-called economic journalists and professors, let alone mere laymen, do not seem to believe in the truth of economic principles. They do not believe, for example, that the minimum wage creates unemployment and negatively effects the poor more than others, and yet there is no more straightforward example of economic reasoning. Surely, if economics is the dominant ideology of our times, as you claim, such a clear and simple case as the minimum wage would not still be in existence, let alone a matter too controversial for mainstream debate.

Also, economics does not have a supreme goal of unending growth in production and consumption. It simply analyses what means should be used to reach desired ends. That is all.

Gittins: Economists need to “see the economy as existing within the ecosystem … the global economy is an open, growing system, whereas the global ecosystem … is fixed in size. It doesn’t grow. It receives no new flows of materials, though it does receive a continuous (fixed) flow of energy from the sun” (p. 196).

Editor: Yes, that we receive a continuous flow of energy from the sun is quite an important statement.

Gittins: [No comment.]

Editor: What do you think about the division of labour, which explains why productivity can increase indefinitely as people focus more and more on what their speciality is?

Gittins: [No comment.]

Editor: What is happiness measured in and how?

Gittins: Happiness surveys are a “new way of measuring utility directly” (p. 170).

Editor: I admit, as I have explained in my essay “Grounding Political Debate,” that demonstrated preference is not a good measure of utility. But I fail to see how there could be any satisfactory measure. You are right in pointing out that what people say and what people do are different, but it does not follow that we should ignore what they do. Indeed, it seems wise to trust only action, although, as you will know from reading “Grounding Political Debate,” I don’t have much faith in that. When you say, “Economists became great believers that only what we did counted; anything we said about our preferences was of little reliability. Sorry, not that simple” (pp. 1-2). I agree, but isn’t it true that the sincerity of an action can’t be doubted, but the sincerity of what we say in a survey can?

And if we are not rational in what we do, what makes you think we can be more rational in what we say? Speaking is an action too.

Gittins: “According to the psychologists [who run such surveys], their survey results can be relied on” (p. 20).

Editor: What do you think of Lew Rockwell’s reductio ad absurdum of such thinking: “The most absurd public opinion polls are those on taxes. Now, if there is one thing we know about taxes, it is that people do not want to pay them. If they wanted to pay them, there would be no need for taxes [which are compulsory, not voluntary]. People would gladly figure out how much of their money the government deserves and send it in. And yet we routinely hear about opinion polls that reveal that the public likes the tax level as it is and might even like it higher. Next they will tell us that the public thinks the crime rate is too low, or that the American people would really like to be in more auto accidents” (Speaking of Liberty, p. 281)?

Gittins: [No comment.]

Editor: It would seem that you believe that surveys are better signs of what people want than market prices. Surely, this must mean that you prefer the “official” survey of political elections than allowing the market to function by itself, and that you support the expansion of government intervention into the market; the replacement of the market with government, of prices with surveys (with non-market limits on question and answers options, scope, frequency, who can issue surveys, who can answer them, and how, and how the surveys are responded to, etc). If not, why not? What principle do you believe in that denies this.

Gittins: “[I]t wouldn’t be playing the human game as it’s intended to be played. It wouldn’t be running the risks, or experiencing the joys, that come from our interaction with other people. It would involve no challenge — no learning from experience, no triumphing over adversity — and thus no feelings of satisfaction from achievement. It would be a life lived without striving, without accomplishment, without any contribution to making the world a better place” (p. 12; see also, for praise of market efficiency, p. 163 and p. 184).

Editor: Yes, but, to repeat, what principle do you believe in that opposes total government? And if you think the market is so good, how can you be so prolific in your suggestions for government sabotage of those good things?

Gittins: [No comment.]

Editor: You say, “Economists rarely warn people how narrow their perspective is” (p. 165). Economists from the Austrian school, like Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard, constantly go on about the limits of economics. You also say, “At the academic level mainstream economics has become terribly inward-looking, losing interest in real-world problems while, ironically, trying to make itself more scientific — ‘rigorous’ — by expressing analysis in mathematical equations rather than words or even diagrams. This does much to explain economists’ failure to foresee the global financial crisis” (p. 166). The Austrian school is obviously not the mainstream, and it has not made any of those errors. And everyone familiar with the Austrian school did foresee the financial crisis.

You say that economists have “failed to take account of subsequent advances in other sciences, particularly psychology, evolutionary biology, neuroscience and ecology” (pp. 165-66). Yet it would seem you have failed, for the entire length of your career, to take account of the Austrian school of economics, which has been around even longer.

Gittins: [No comment on the existence of the Austrian school.]

Editor: Well, back to your espousal of those “advancing” sciences of psychology, evolutionary biology and neuroscience: do you believe in free will?

Gittins: “[T]he sensation of intention comes before the actual action. Thus we gain an impression of free will — I decided to act, so I acted — even though the brain activity that causes an action comes before we’re aware of the intention and actually causes us to have the intention” (p. 30).

Editor: Then why do you use terms like “intention” and “action”? Why do you use the language of free will? Is it not misleading?

Gittins: [No comment. And no programmed, conditioned, or reflex response either.]

Editor: What do you think of the difference between utility ex ante and ex post, as explained in “Grounding Political Debate”? From my reading of your work it does not seem that you sufficiently acknowledge the distinction. After all, people often change their mind as to whether they like something, and it is very shaky basing any policy on something that can be so easily changed.

One sign for me that you do not appreciate the difference is that you say, “[F]rom where I’m sitting, a childhood in the 1950s was happy — especially in retrospect” (p. 9). And you also say, “When I was growing up in the supposedly terminally boring fifties, they seemed pretty good to me” (p. 233). It seems to me that the first comment about your childhood emphasises ex post utility, whereas the second one emphasises ex ante utility. It does not seem right to so casually change emphasis.

Gittins: [No comment.]

Editor: Okay, I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt on that one, and that one only, especially since the comments I compared were over 200 pages apart. But what about when you say, “[S]ince about 90 per cent of people get married at some point in their lives, it seems pretty clear that marriage leads to happiness, not vice versa” (p. 63). There seem to be other fallacies smuggled into that claim too, but the main one is ignorance over the difference between utility ex ante and ex post.

Gittins: [No comment.]

Editor: Lastly, Mr Gittins, you say that, due to capitalism, scarcity is no longer much of an issue (for example, p. 173 and p. 185). Then you mention many environmental problems (pp. 201-03). Well, either it is an issue, or, it isn’t? It would seem that in your quest to criticise capitalism you have provided so many criticisms that they knock each other out. You say, “[T]here is a need for a clear indicator of our proximity to dangerous levels of environmental damage (such as associated with climate change or depletion of fishing stocks)” (p. 192). But, at the same time, you discount both: (a) the ability of market prices to harmonise supply and demand; and (b) the belief that lack of supply is a problem. That’s a convenient arrangement.

Gittins: [No comment.]

Editor: Sorry, I might have cut you off there. Was there any response you wanted to make?

Gittins: [No comment.]

Editor: Mr Gittins, thank you for your time. If you would like, at any time, in any venue, with weapons of your choosing, to ask us any questions, we would be glad to answer them. Regarding your interest in environmental concerns, you may be interested in Murray Rothbard’s terrific essay on that subject here.3

Footnotes
  1. Minor point: Gittins says that “Holidays are non-positional” (p. 230). From my experience this is not the case, but perhaps Gittins mixes in humbler circles than I. Maybe he confuses a Giffen good with a Gittins good.
  2. Also, as an aside, with everyone asking the government for everything, isn’t the adulation shown to government more worth writing about?
  3. A final point: On the copyright page it says that “The paper in this book is FSC certified. FSC promotes environmentally responsible, socially beneficial and economically viable management of the world’s forest.” I’m shocked there’s no message as to whether the book is recyclable.
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  2. Why Sports Fans Should Be Libertarians
  3. Ron Manners’ Heroic Misadventures
  4. Government Schools Teach Fascism Perfectly
  5. Deport Government to Solve Immigration Problem
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  8. Self-Defeating Campaigning
  9. Gittinomics: Economics for Gits
  10. Exclusive Ross Gittins Interview on The Happy Economist
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  12. An Open Letter to the CIS
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  20. The MPS 2010 Consensus
  21. Slogans for Property Rights Funeral
  22. Government is Impossible: Introduction
  23. Government is Criminal: Part 1
  24. Exclusive John Howard Interview on Lazarus Rising
  25. Response to Senator Cory Bernardi and the IPA
  26. Earn $$$$$ by Justifying Government Against Anarchocapitalism: Survey
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(in order of appearance on Economics.org.au)
  1. Gittinomics: Economics for Gits
  2. Exclusive Ross Gittins Interview on The Happy Economist
  3. Ross Gittins Wins Bert Kelly Award
  4. Ross Gittins Opposes Licensing
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