Markets, Productivity, and Happiness in a Historical Perspective

Theme of the Conference

Markets, Productivity and Happiness in a Historical Perspective

The theme of the conference is inspired by a rather widespread thesis in today’s economic debate: namely, that shifting the focus of economic discourse from individual utility to the concept of happiness might deeply affect our way of thinking about productivity (as a measure of the power to meet needs) and the market (as an institutional device for negotiating transferable rights). In fact, once happiness replaces individual utility, the link, traditionally taken for granted, between increase in productivity and competitiveness and higher utility for at least someone without sacrifice for anyone is no longer so obvious. Whatever its definition, happiness is a qualitative concept that cannot generally be reduced to a completely comparable order in terms of “more”, “less”, “equal”. Moreover, happiness is an organic/relational concept that is generally not divisible into individual portions independent of each other and of the whole.

Productivity and the extension of competitive markets influence happiness not only through the well-known effects on quantities and prices of goods and services, but also in that they define people’s lifestyles and inter-personal relationships. All these aspects are determinants of happiness at least as important as the attainable levels of material satisfaction. The variations they produce are not only of scale but also of pattern, and therefore they require more complex value judgments than the “more = better” criterion usually referred to by economists. This latter kind of judgment could justify some economists’ claim of “cognitive neutrality” for their discipline but judging the quality of happiness or unhappiness associated with a given social pattern inevitably brings to the fore the ethical and political dimensions of any such assessment.

As historians of HET we may wonder whether the foregoing is something new and opens to hitherto unknown perspectives or instead it is simply new verbal wrapping for long existing problems dealt with in different ways in the past.

Moreover, we may wonder if and how the emphasis on happiness involves discontinuity and rupture rather than enrichment and integration with respect to previous theories. Purely by way of example, without claiming to be exhaustive, we indicate some of the problematic areas that seem to us most directly involved in the theme of the conference:

- Public happiness versus Pareto efficiency in the field of social choice and welfare

- The idea of productivity in the different schools of economic thought

- Production of non-excludable goods, in particular environmental goods, versus excludable goods

- Market versus non-market rights trading instruments

- Economic growth and happiness.

- Productivity and happiness.

- Happy/unhappy growth/degrowth

- Degrowth proposals

- The difference (and potential contrast) between growth and development.

- Inequality as a pattern of social unhappiness

- Productivity and quality of life

- Productivity and sustainability

- Markets and the ecological issue