Overrated: Richard Layard

The indefatigable showbusiness veteran manages to deliver happiness without a PhD or a government diktat

In his recent book, Treason of the Heart, David Pryce-Jones shows how English romantics have long sought foreign causes they could champion. The economist Professor Richard Layard — Lord Layard since his ennoblement a decade ago by Tony Blair — is the latest example. He has found his idyll in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, or more accurately in prelapsarian Bhutan. In the 1970s the King of Bhutan embraced “Gross National Happiness” rather than GNP — a convenient position for the absolute monarch of one of the poorest nations on earth.  

Following this potentate’s dictum, Layard has developed what he claims is the new science of happiness. At its core is the idea that governments are too obsessed with their country’s wealth and not concerned enough with their people’s happiness. This idea has gained traction since 2005, when the first edition of Layard’s book Happiness: Lessons from a New Science came out. He now writes: “Much has changed since the first edition of this book. On the good side, the interest in well-being has ballooned. It is in the news every day. David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy promote it.” Alas, Lord Layard is only slightly exaggerating his book’s influence.  

His background was exotic. His father John Layard was an anthropologist, who lived for a year with the people of Malekula in the New Hebrides, perhaps anticipating his son’s hankering for Bhutan. However, the elder Layard moved on to the expatriate gay circles of 1920s Berlin, becoming a mentor to W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood. He suffered from depression, shot himself in the head, was treated by Jung and became a disciple of the psychologist. 

Young Richard, born in 1934, had a more conventional career. After Eton and King’s College, Cambridge, he worked as a researcher for the Robbins Committee on Higher Education, which led to the great expansion of universities. Thanks to Robbins, Layard found a berth as a labour economist at the London School of Economics, where he has remained ever since. From 1991 to 1997 he was an economic adviser to the Russian government of Boris Yeltsin. His book The Coming Russian Boom appeared in 1996 — just in time for the Russian financial crash of 1998. In 1991 he married Molly (now Baroness) Meacher — a healthcare quangocrat. She is the ex-wife of the Labour MP Michael Meacher, sometime leading figure of the Labour Left and unsuccessful libel litigant. The couple are Labour aristocracy. But Layard has only become a significant public figure thanks to his new science. Happiness, it seems, is good business.

As a Benthamite utilitarian, he thinks government should act to maximise the happiness of its citizens. This means redistributing wealth: an extra pound in the pocket of someone on £10,000 will produce more happiness than it will for someone on £100,000. By making his argument on the basis of happiness Layard does not have to answer the charge that redistributive policies make a society less competitive, less affluent and therefore less wealthy for all in the long run. Nor does he have to engage in debates about justice. He has simply found a new basis for regurgitating an age-old policy of the centre-Left. But Layard’s “science” is about more than redistribution. Some of his ideas may appeal to conservatives — marriage is superior to cohabitation, crime is not caused by inequality or unemployment — but they are not grounded in a solid analytical framework. Instead Happiness is padded out by mildly diverting factoids. Texan women are happiest when having sex and least happy when commuting. They spend 73 hours per annum on sex and 146 hours on prayer; the sex makes them happier, but praying beats shopping, cooking or exercising. The new science of happiness does not get any more rigorous than this.

Layard’s real passion, however, seems to be a hatred of television. In Britain we spend more time watching television than we do on paid work. Life, he opines, has got much unhappier since the masses could afford to watch the box. (We are not told if he actually possesses one.) Television feeds us with constant images of people who are richer, more successful and better-looking than we are. This makes us miserable. Much better, Layard argues, if people are grounded in their own world — much better, although he does not of course put it quite like this, if people know their place.  

Bhutan’s utopia, Layard would have us believe, was destroyed when the king lifted his ban on television in 1999. Perhaps the infiltration of our abominable celebrity culture into the Himalayas explains why the professor prefers to live in Highgate.

David Cameron should seriously consider how much of Lord Layard’s reactionary romanticism he really wants to embrace — and how it goes down with “hard-working families”. Ominously, Conservative MPs already complain that their constituents find nothing more galling than to be told by a Cabinet of the privileged that there is more to life than material prosperity.

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