Economics of Mozart and Happiness

by Kieran Healy on February 23, 2004

Tyler Cowen “writes”:

bq. Read Michael’s recent treatment of “The Economics of Mozart”: The bottom line? Mozart was a successful commercial entrepreneur. His economic problems stemmed from a war with Turkey, not the failures of the marketplace.

He should definitely have known better than to start a war with Turkey. That whole “abduction from the seraglio”: business was a complete farce. Meanwhile — sorry, I’m not even going to pretend to link these comments — Matt Yglesias “makes the following observation”: about Greg Easterbrook’s _The Progress Paradox_:

bq. The real progress paradox isn’t “why doesn’t all our stuff make us happy” but rather, given that all our stuff pretty clearly doesn’t make us happy, how do we come to have all this stuff.

Which seems about right. An unwillingness to distinguish these two questions — or rather, the decision, for technical purposes, to treat them as if they were the _same_ question — is a hallmark of modern economics. Robert E. Lane has “a book”: that argues this point. Bruno Frey and Alois Stutzer “have a solid rejoinder”: from the economist’s point of view, arguing that money can indeed go a long way towards making you happy — but not as far, surprisingly, as democratic institutions and local political autonomy can.



GMT 02.23.04 at 7:23 pm

< i> how do we come to have all this stuff ?
Because you’ve been had.


George Stewart 02.23.04 at 10:13 pm

Gotama Siddhartha had a better answer than Marx et. al. to Matt’s version of the progress paradox centuries ago.

We _think_ having stuff will make us happy (that’s why we make, sell and buy it); but it doesn’t.

But we’d think it made us happy no matter _what_ economic system we lived in.

All that’s happened in the economic system we do live in is we’re able to produce more stuff more and more cheaply.

The resolution of all this is that it’s actually ok having stuff, so long as you don’t think it’ll make you happy. :-)


drapetomaniac 02.24.04 at 12:00 am

stuff makes me happy. what makes you think stuff doesn’t make people happy?


chris 02.24.04 at 7:44 am

The question is, where does stuff start (or stop)?

Living in a stone house with insulated floors definitely makes me happier than living in an iron age roundhouse. Taking a shower make me happier than freezing my arse off in a hip bath. Central heating makes me ecstatic when I think about hauling coals morning and night.

But a lot of other stuff, agreed, serves no purpose other than to frighten me every time I look at a bank statement. I’ve got rid of some of it. I should probably get rid of a lot more. But where’s the line?


George Stewart 02.24.04 at 9:44 am

It kind of makes you happy, for a wee while; but if you hang _too_ much of your happiness on the getting of external things, then you are to a certain extent not really free inside yourself, not independent. There’s a stronger, more abiding kind of happiness to be had from being internally independent of the getting and having of things. Some people can be happy with a minimum of stuff, like monks, hermits, etc. and While most of us aren’t drawn to that kind of minimalist life, it’s worth having a bit of that kind of independence of things in one’s own life.

Put it this way, I wouldn’t want to not have any stuff, or live in a society where stuff isn’t as abundant as it is in our society. But when I check myself, and if I find myself getting really upset when I _can’t have_ a certain thing, then I know I’m “caught”, trapped in a subtle way.

Get the stuff, have it, enjoy it, but at the same time be internally free of it, be able to drop it with a laugh.


Tom West 02.24.04 at 9:48 am

Perhaps I’ve read too many evo-bio books, but it seems very likely that we’re programmed to want to acquire things (thus improving our survival). Once we’ve acquired it, there’s no reason for biology to have it continue to make us happy.

The trap is that being relatively poorer than our neighbours *does* make us unhappy, and can even endanger our health. Poverty is relative but very real. Those who live substantially less well than their peers almost always have poorer health and are more victimized by crime than those who lived at a similar level years ago. i.e. You’ve got to keep up your consumption or suffer the consequences of poverty.

To be honest, I can’t see any way out of it.


CTD 02.27.04 at 12:14 am

If more stuff won’t make people happy – maybe statist attempts to interfere in the economy (protectionism, redistribution of wealth) at the cost of freedom are wholly ill-advised?

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