Among the themes to emerge from ‘happiness economics’ one seized on by those disapproving of open markets and the decision-making autonomy they may bring is that having ‘choice’ does not necessarily make people happy. In situations as diverse as choosing items from a restaurant menu to more complex decisions about which financial products to buy it appears that having ‘too many’ options may add to the burden of stress that people feel owing to the fear of making the ‘wrong choice’ or not the ‘best choice’. This finding is associated with Barry Schwartz and Sheena Iyengar. These writers do not themselves jump to suggest that governments reduce choice in order to make people happier (though in the case of Iyengar, this is not explicitly ruled out). They tend to prefer instead various ‘self control’ measures aimed at satisficing rather than maximizing decisions – strategies which are fully at one with a classical liberal focus on individual liberty. Others, however, in the ‘green’ and ‘anti-globalist’ camps (the New Economics Foundation in the UK springs to mind) do not hesitate in advancing their own pet plans to ‘increase happiness’ by restricting individual liberties in pursuit of an explicitly anti-consumerist and anti-market agenda.
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Mark Pennington is the author of Robust Political Economy: Classical Liberalism and the Future of Public Policy