Petronella Wyatt

The price of happiness

Petronella Wyatt talks to Richard Layard, who believes that higher taxation can reduce envy and make us all happier

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Richard Layard, the founder of the LSE Centre for Economic Performance, is a brave man. The Labour peer and adviser to the government has written a book on happiness. Or to be more precise, Happiness: Lessons from a New Science. This is big stuff. I mean, happiness is the whole point of life, right? Philosophers since Aristotle have been trying to puzzle it out. And then this geezer with no philosophical training claims to have knocked out a tome containing all the answers.

Not only that; Layard thinks that governments should legislate to reduce unhappiness, as they legislate to reduce unemployment or crime. This will horrify not only Burkean conservatives and laissez-faire liberals, but also followers of Maurice Cowling who think that ‘the freedom, discipline and social solidarity of modern societies would not be possible without inequality and suffering’. Layard, you see, believes we should all be encouraged to be equally happy, and he says he knows how to do it.

I stand in the lobby of the House of Lords, awaiting the arrival of this miracle-maker. What will his appearance be? Exalted? Serene? Will he be beaming? When he turns up he is a slightly surprising-looking happiness prophet. He has short grey hair, stern spectacles and a long nose that gives him an Eeyore-ish expression. He shakes my hand gravely and says, ‘We have to wait for an interview room, I’m afraid. They are all booked. Let’s go to the bar and have coffee.’ But the Lords bar is not serving coffee and the acoustics are appalling. ‘Oh dear,’ he says, mournfully. But his natural optimism soon returns and he decides to see if an interview room is free just in case. It is.

What prompted you to take on such a difficult subject? I ask. ‘I’ve always been interested in happiness,’ he replies. ‘I believe everyone can be happy.’ But surely it is more sensible to accept that suffering is an inevitable part of life? Layard disagrees. His doctrine, which is being taken increasingly seriously by the government, includes the belief that we make ourselves unhappy by comparing our socio-economic positions with other people’s. Because of the race to keep up with the Joneses we are no happier than we were 50 years ago, though our average incomes have doubled. Layard’s solution to this is to use taxation to reduce inequality.

I agree that the rat race is not the most desirable of situations and that we do indeed cause ourselves misery by envying our neighbours. But surely past experiments have shown that enforcing equality of income isn’t the solution. Layard’s big thing is taxation. He is convinced that paying taxes makes us really happy and that if we paid more we would be even happier. ‘Taxation is not really an infringement of freedom, you see. It creates freedom,’ he says.

Although some of what Layard says makes sense, this does not. I remind him of Britain in the 1970s, when the rich left the country and the ‘brain drain’ occurred. And what of aspirational people who hope one day to earn decent money, but don’t want to give a third of it to the tax man? Why else do so many of us go to a great deal of trouble to pay less tax by legal means? Sweden has a high rate of tax and an even higher suicide rate. Surely if people were happy to pay high taxes, Layard’s own party would be advocating it?

‘It should. You see, paying taxes and redistribution is a way of helping other people. People who help others are happier than those who just pursue self-realisation,’ he says. ‘But Richard,’ I argue. ‘No one is truly altruistic. Humans are biologically conditioned to get ahead and achieve things for themselves. How can you suppress the most natural of human urges — even if it is to be deplored?’ He concedes the point. ‘Yes, we are biologically conditioned to have the competitive gene. But I think that the desire to feel good is even stronger.’

I reply that happiness, as defined by Aristotle — the pursuit of intellectual pleasures — is not possible if one is constantly worrying about bills. Moreover, in order to help others it is useful to have some money yourself. Layard is stubborn. ‘That is wrong. Richer people take on more financial responsibilities. This doesn’t make them happy.’

‘But how can you measure happiness?’ He allows that happiness fluctuates, but claims that people can be made happier over months and years. ‘What I am saying above all,’ he remarks, slowly, ‘is that we must have more equality.’

‘But some people are always more equal than others. The smallest differences cause just as much envy as the biggest. Are you saying people were happier in the Soviet Union?’ ‘Er, no. I’m not saying people were happier in the Soviet Union.’

We move on to one of his top indexes of unhappiness, the rise in crime — blamed again on ‘getting ahead’. I suggest that perhaps there is more crime because of population growth, the fact that there is more to steal, and a lack of discipline in schools and at home. Our education system turns out children without aspirations. If they were told by teachers that they could do well by legal means, perhaps they wouldn’t mug old ladies. Layard himself has ‘got ahead’ in the conventional sense. ‘Surely you are driven — an example of the man who pleased God in the Parable of the Talents,’ I say. ‘You contradict your own book. Unless you are unhappy.’

‘No, I’ve had a happy life. But I believe in realising talent for the benefit of others.’ I pause. ‘So you believe in selflessness. Would a selfless man have accepted a peerage?’ Layard turns peony pink and coughs so hard I wonder whether to hit him. ‘Erm, um, a, er, good question. The, er, Labour party, er, needed some more peers.’ He begins to laugh. ‘Obviously many people like to think they have something useful to say. But, yes, I do like it. I was flattered.’

Layard has worked hard all his life. He lives in a large house in Highgate. He admits to never having had ‘financial issues’. Nor has he suffered from depression. So why, in his book, does Layard blame high incomes for the alleged increase in mental illness over the past 50 years? One of the reasons our society is failing, he says, is that more people claim to suffer from clinical depression. Yet clinical depression has only recently been diagnosed. Past generations would not have admitted it, or would have told the depressed to ‘snap out of it’.

Perhaps we have become too preoccupied with happiness. Happiness has become an industry, with magazines and newspapers encouraging us to measure our feelings, conversely making people more unhappy. What is the answer, then? It seems we are at an impasse. On the one hand, seeing someone else do better makes us unhappy, as, on the other hand, does the prospect of equality. Maybe one should simply accept that man was not made to be happy?

I wonder if Layard has given a copy of his book to Tony Blair. ‘No, I haven’t.’

‘Do you think he is unhappy? I mean, he is the ultimate product of the rat race.’ Layard looks wary. ‘I wouldn’t know.’

‘But you’ve written a whole book on it!’

In 1997 Layard was a consultant to David Blunkett at the Department for Education and Employment. ‘You didn’t do a very good job of making him happy,’ I chide. ‘Will he be getting a copy in the post?’

‘Er, no. Poor man. But I will send a book to Gordon.’

‘Gordon Brown. What an admission! So he is very unhappy, is he?’

‘Um, he likes read ing.’

Layard is an odd man. A happy man who bangs on about unhappiness. A comfortably off man who rails against wealth. I can’t quite see how this makes him fully qualified to tell the government what to do about our wellbeing. In any case, in the end happiness is no one’s business but our own. If Lord Layard told my plumber that he should give up the rat race and pay more taxes, he would probably get a bop on the snozzle for his trouble.