Government

The Quantified Citizen

Engineering happiness might sound good, but it will leave us all less free.

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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 techno-libertarian 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 start-ups. 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. We need more wide-ranging and sophisticated data to help guide our policy makers.

In 1972, the fourth Dragon King of Bhutan pioneered the idea of a "Gross National Happiness Index." Since then, the idea that we might express such qualitative phenomena as "happiness" or "life satisfaction" in quantitative ways has gained a surprising degree of credence. In 2011, the White House Office of Management and Budget announced that it was considering how various forms of happiness measurement might help improve "regulatory policy in ways that promote the goals of economic growth, innovation, competitiveness, and job creation."

But as White argues, the sense of precision such quantification produces is largely illusory. How do we arrive at a single definition of "happiness" or "well-being" that we can apply to people of widely divergent temperaments and living situations? And even if we could agree on a definition, how do we then accurately translate highly subjective feelings and perceptions into actionable data?

Typically, happiness surveys ask respondents to choose from a selection of potential phrases to describe how they are feeling, then convert these answers into numerical amounts. "We know the spaces between inch or centimeter markings on a ruler are the same, as are the spaces between degrees on a thermometer," White observes in his book. "But we shouldn't have any confidence that the difference between zero as 'utterly unhappy' and one as 'fairly unhappy' has any particular meaning, much less the same meaning as the difference between one as 'fairly unhappy' and two as 'neither happy nor unhappy.'"

As arbitrary as these transmutations may be, they offer the appearance of precision. And that precision-and the seeming knowledge and insight it implies-legitimates intervention. If we can determine that banning all car traffic for one day each month in a given test city leads to a 0.5 percent uptick in Average Regional Happiness, aren't we compelled, and perhaps even morally obligated, to implement this tactic on a national scale?

Alas, the quantified state's interventionist mandate remains just as presumptuous in cases where the data is more solid—say Gross National Electrodermal Response or Aggregate Shower Hours. "All measures-including [gross national product]-are outcome-oriented measures that in my view are irrelevant to proper governance," White declares. "Government should be guaranteeing just and fair and free processes for people to make choices and live lives of their own choosing, without harming anyone else. Even with GDP-let's say that GDP falls by 2.1 percent one quarter. If you take the viewpoint that that decline was the result of decisions made voluntarily, under relatively good information, what does it matter if it fell? What right does the government have to say, 'This collective mass of decisions people made weren't good enough, so we're going to fix that'?"

But how likely is it that government policy makers at any level will decide to check their ambitions when it's getting easier and easier to collect and/or manufacture data that legitimizes increasingly proactive behavior? If anything, the idea that government should adopt such tactics will only become more commonplace. After all, it's what Google does. It's what Facebook does. If the Department of Health and Human Services is going to pour millions into combatting obesity, why not measure outcomes? And once we understand what influences those outcomes, shouldn't we deploy tactics that help deliver the intended results?

The problem is that such thinking imposes a viewpoint about what's "right" or what's "best" upon myriad individual lives. A state that emphasizes processes over outcomes is a pluralist state, whose citizens have the freedom to define and pursue happiness in their own particular fashion. A quantified state optimizes outcomes by narrowing possibilities—and establishing "efficiency and uplift for all" as the new national mandate. You don't need a sophisticated sensor network to register that as a step backward.

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70 responses to “The Quantified Citizen

  1. What right does the government have to say, ‘This collective mass of decisions people made weren’t good enough, so we’re going to fix that’?”

    Most election nights I’m left wishing they would say that.

  2. “The best things in life are free” – says the man with no money.

    Good morning, Reasonoids. Of course, I jest. The man with no money understands that the best things in life ARE “free”, because “someone else” is paying for them, like “the government”.

    Modern Man. Ain’t he wonderful?

    1. Some wiseacre once said it’s better to be the victim of injustice than the perpetrator. Taking free shit from someone (of course a gun is pointed at his head) and you are making him better off in relative terms. You should be happy when taxed.

      1. “This is going to hurt me worse than it hurts you…”

        1. “Then let’s not do that.”

          “Ok, that was a lie. I’m still gonna hit you though.”

        2. When someone says “This is going to hurt me worse than it hurts you…” you know it’s a lie.

    2. Good morning.

      Now that we live in a world in which people are more than willing to pay a couple bucks for a drink of water, the best things in life either are no longer free or won’t be for much longer.

    3. Hey! I take exception to that. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I have no money, but Jan/Feb are my leanest months by far.

      I don’t expect free shit from anyone. I act like most working-class people used to and keep my debt low to non-existent when possible and budget ahead/moderately change my lifestyle until better times swing back my way. Don’t lump us all together man. 😉

  3. Paging Hari Seldon.

    1. The fall of Empire, gentlemen, is a massive thing, however, and not easily fought. It is dictated by a rising bureaucracy, a receding initiative, a freezing of caste, a damming of curiosity?a hundred other factors. It has been going on, as I have said, for centuries, and it is too majestic and massive a movement to stop.

      I’m more of a Salvor Hardin man, personally.

  4. If we could just stop hundreds of millions of people from making an unknown number choices ( each day,week,month,year ) things would be fine.

    1. If we could just stop a handful of politicians, and other royals, from making choices things would be awesome.

      1. Those are not choices.There demands at the point of a gun.

        1. If we could just stop a handful of politicians, and other royals, from choosing to make demands at gun point things would be awesome.

  5. The reset worked.

    http://www.zerohedge.com/news/…..0-megatons

    1. I’ve said this before. I’m totally ok with a Russian takeover of everything north of Richmond and east of ohio.

      1. It used to be said the Commies would have to leave at least one free market country standing after taking over the world. How else would they know what prices to charge?

  6. Foolish mammals, your Future Reptilian Overlords have got this covered. All your choices will be governed solely by individual taste.

  7. Greg, please stop thinking.

    1. Anal, please stop.

      1. Your dyslexia really works.

    2. What specifically do you disagree with him on?

  8. Do-gooders usually do the most to bring misery to those who understand that without freedom life has very little, if any, positive value.

    1. According the social planner, the socialist, the American pastor, and the law-and-order neocon, optimal freedom is that which exists under lock and key.

      1. Freedom is like a butterfly, just got to set it free. If it’s real it’ll always come back (assuming some social engineer doesn’t kill it first).

        1. Sometimes freedom doesn’t come back… the future is a hard place to leave.

          1. At the end of the Universe there’s only one temperature and no possibility of further action.

  9. If we can determine that banning all car traffic for one day each month in a given test city leads to a 0.5 percent uptick in Average Regional Happiness, aren’t we compelled, and perhaps even morally obligated, to implement this tactic on a national scale?

    Indeed. This stuff has more utility than the carbon tax!

    If we can determine that banning all hate speech for one day each month in a given test city leads to a 0.5 percent uptick in Average Regional Happiness, ….

    If we can determine that giving out more free shit for one day each month in a given test city leads to a 0.5 percent uptick in Average Regional Happiness, ….

    1. As I said when Obama had his Rose Garden speech bitching about how his gun-control law failed in Congress, “If concentrating children into camps where only government-approved responsible adults look after them could save the life of even one child, don’t we have an obligation to try?”

      1. This is Sparta!

    2. If we can determine that banning all hate speech for one day each month in a given test city leads to a 0.5 percent uptick in Average Regional Happiness, ….

      What if we can determine that encouraging hate speech, misogyny, and racism leads to a 0.5 percent uptick in national happiness?

  10. Keep thinking, Greg. I’m digging it.

  11. I was gonna bring up Bhutan, but the article beat me to it. I think the “Gross National Happiness” thing was also tied to forcing out those with Nepalese decent (Hindus) and generally creating a humanitarian disaster.

    Bhutan is an interesting example for those that think Buddhism somehow rises above base human drives when religion combines with politics.

    1. “Bhutan is an interesting example for those that think Buddhism somehow rises above base human drives when religion combines with politics”

      So is every other buddhist nation, but I don’t see the tie between the nepalis and national happiness.

      1. Because the same king that instituted GNH as a form of national identity also forced out people of Nepalese decent who didn’t fit his idea of national identity.

        And Bhutan’s history is not only sectarian violence between Buddhist and Hindu, but monarchal dynastic struggles between Tibetan Buddhist and Indian Buddhist.

        If you never claimed Buddhism was “different”, this isn’t a revelation. But I’ve met many that have. Mostly lefty spiritual types who hate the Catholicism they were raised with, and turn three shades of red if you claim the Dalai Lama is just another pope.

    2. I think the problem isn’t with Buddhism but with statism. If you believe that it’s the job of the state to optimize people’s live, then religious conflict is inevitable. Buddhists are as justified in not wanting to be subject to Hindu-motivated social policies ad protestants are justified in not wanting to be subject to Catholic-inspired social policy.

      The only way you can avoid these kinds of conflicts is having a libertarian state and have all other restrictions and choices be self-imposed. People can still be part of religious communities with draconian rules if that’s what they like, they just can’t impose those rules on others.

      1. “The only way you can avoid these kinds of conflicts is having a libertarian state and have all other restrictions and choices be self-imposed.”

        In Western societies at least religion is not managed by the state, but another institution, and a fairly patriarchal one – the family. The decision whether or not to Christen or circumcize etc is typically not taken by the state or the individual.

      2. Someone’s been listening to Cato podcasts.

  12. Binary-based solutionism is maximized by technoguilt and its cousin the squeamish-boolean.

    1. That’s true, no, false, no, true.

      1. A valid broloop right there.

        1. A. Statement B is false

          B. Statement A is true

  13. I see no indication that The Government has any better grasp of distributed computer tch than, say, the IBM execs who allowed Bill Gates to tertian ownership of the operating system. They seems o almost grasp what computers were and could to about tenth years ago, and to be making plans based on that under stinging.

    Can you imagine what a clusterf*ck THAT is likely to cause?

    1. When I first became interested in computers the government, outside of funding a little research by Carnegie Mellon and such, seemed to have no grasp whatsoever of computer technology.

      Those were the happy days.

    2. the IBM execs who allowed Bill Gates to tertian ownership of the operating system.

      IBM would have dearly liked to retain ownership of the OS. They made a deal with Bill Gates because they were under serious antitrust scrutiny.

  14. They seems o almost grasp what computers were and could to about tenth years ago, and to be making plans based on that under stinging.

    Autocorrect is a bitch sometimes.

  15. I propose a counter-nudging movement.

  16. I must live on a different planet. Where I come from, we don’t have a thing called “government” we can blame for being intrusive. Our fellow citizens fill that role just fine. We stand in awe of how scientific everything is: economics, politics, even history and language since we learned how to “matematicize” everything. That’s all you have to do, you know, to make something a science. True, we have some oddballs who haven’t yet gotten with the program, but we don’t worry about them because in time their grandchildren will find these old fogies to be quite humorous. A professional expert taught me how to raise my happiness score 0.5% by altering my exercise routine and signing up for a local school course on topiary. These programs were all devised by a famous university team. My neighbors swear by it. We don’t need no government to make us do this. We are a free people and fully responsible for our actions.

    1. “I must live on a different planet.”

      On my planet decisions and policies are justified on the basis of something every bit as vague as the ‘gross national happiness.’ We call it Standard of Living.

  17. If you’re happy and you know it clap hour hands.

    If you’re happy and you don’t know it, clap your hands?

  18. my classmate’s ex-wife makes $72 every hour on the internet . She has been unemployed for six months but last month her check was $13076 just working on the internet for a few hours?????? http://www.jobsblaze.com

  19. my friend’s aunt makes $62 an hour on the computer . She has been laid off for five months but last month her pay was $14934 just working on the computer for a few hours. Visit this site………
    ????? http://www.netpay20.com

  20. I glanced at the drawing, couldn’t read the labels too well, and for a sec. thought the “B” in the middle stood for beer.

  21. my friend’s aunt makes $62 an hour on the computer . She has been laid off for five months but last month her pay was $14934 just working on the computer for a few hours. Visit this site………
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  22. my friend’s aunt makes $62 an hour on the computer . She has been laid off for five months but last month her pay was $14934 just working on the computer for a few hours. Visit this site………
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  23. If the Department of Health and Human Services is going to pour millions into combatting obesity, why not measure outcomes?

    If we’re going to pour millions into improving education, why not measure the outcomes?

    That assumes, of course, that reduced obesity and improved education is actually the goal of spending.

  24. You know who else wanted his workers to be happy?

  25. If national happiness is a national goal, will unhappiness be unpatriotic?

    1. Yes… Also, scratching your butt-hole during the National Anthem is a sign that, not only are your dissin’ The Sacred Flag, you are also unhappy about that itch on your butt-hole… So you will be condemned on TWO counts…

  26. If scientists found that recreational drug use makes people happy, will it become legal and mandatory?

  27. If this all were true, then my prOn would be getting better and better and it ain’t.

    1. And, for whatever reason, I want another viewing of Fantastic Planet after reading this article.

  28. “solutionism”

    So the new great evil is thinking that problems might have solutions?

    Solutions are icky! Boo!

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  31. Google pay 97$ per hour my last pay check was $8500 working 1o hours a week online. My younger brother friend has been averaging 12k for months now and he works about 22 hours a week. I cant believe how easy it was once I tried it out. This is wha? I do……

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  32. Google pay 97$ per hour my last pay check was $8500 working 1o hours a week online. My younger brother friend has been averaging 12k for months now and he works about 22 hours a week. I cant believe how easy it was once I tried it out.
    This is wha- I do…… ?????? http://www.netjob80.com

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