Magazine article Reason

The Quantified Citizen: Engineering Happiness Might Sound Good, but It Will Leave Us All Less Free

Magazine article Reason

The Quantified Citizen: Engineering Happiness Might Sound Good, but It Will Leave Us All Less Free

Article excerpt

In 1992, when The Man from Hope established a new standard for campaign trail empathy, there were no smartphones, no wireless activity wristbands, no life-tracking apps, no cloud. Bill Clinton felt our pain, but couldn't do much about it. In contrast, today's government caregivers have a vast new arsenal of tools at their disposal. They can feel our pain, aggregate it, analyze it, and implement policies that will reduce it by at least 10 percent. Or at least they can aspire to such grand ambitions.

"There's this pretension that everything that's of importance to human beings can be measured," says Mark D. White, chair of the philosophy department at the College of Staten Island. "This whole trend toward digitizing human life and quantifying it. And if something can be measured, it can also be influenced, manipulated, engineered."

Granted, the power to perform such feats is typically presented as the domain of technology companies, not the Department of Health and Human Services. In the reigning narrative, Silicon Valley is an anti-government force, a haven for technolibertarian disruptors who want to gut licensing commissions, review boards, and all the other safeguards of the regulatory state and replace them with citizen-bureaucrats who maintain order through one-star Yelp reviews and below-average Uber ratings.

But whatever Silicon Valley has done so far to dismantle Big Taxi, it has also popularized and normalized a mind-set that the writer Evgeny Morozov calls "solutionism"--the idea that all human systems can be improved through the judicious application of sensor networks, commodity computing clusters, and other technologies that amplify our ability to track, say, the length of our morning showers or the number of milk cartons we throw in the trash instead of recycling.

Solutionism isn't just for startups. As pioneer solutionist Bill Gates suggested in a 2013 Wall Street Journal op-ed, it's highly extensible. "In the past year, I have been struck by how important measurement is to improving the human condition," he wrote. "You can achieve incredible progress if you set a clear goal and find a measure that will drive progress toward that goal."

Or to put it another way: What's good for the software mogul is good for the philanthropist. And, by extension, the policy maker.

The idea that slow-moving and largely unaccountable government agencies can increase their efficiency and impact by adopting the goal-setting discipline of private enterprise is a central tenet of the solutionist vision. But it also shifts the business of governance from processes to outcomes. It imposes an imperative not to create laws and institutions that make it possible for people to safely and freely pursue their own paths through life, but rather to achieve specific results.

In his book The Manipulation of Choice, published in 2013, Mark White examined the political ramifications of choice architecture, a.k.a. "nudging" or "libertarian paternalism," the practice of making a "good" choice the easy choice. In his book The Illusion of Well-Being, published in 2014, and in a recent paper authored for George Mason University's Mercatus Center called "The Problems with Measuring and Using Happiness for Policy Purposes," White addresses our increasing faith in quantification. There is obviously a great deal of overlap between these two subjects; the more relentlessly you measure people's behavior and begin to understand their actions and behavior, the greater the temptation to steer that behavior in subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle ways.

In The Illusion of Well-Being, White focuses on efforts to enhance gross domestic product (GDP) and other measures of economic output "with more direct measures of people's actual well-being--in simple terms, their happiness." For decades, economists, behavioral psychologists, and the occasional benevolent despot have argued that merely toting up economic gains from year to year does not give us a complete enough picture of a country's aggregate well-being. …

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