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Shooting at the wrong goal

Guest post by Mao Yushi

Over three decades of economic reform, China has witnessed an exponential increase in wealth creation. China is now one of the largest wealth generators in the world – but probably also one of the largest generators of dissatisfaction, considering the recent increase in citizen complaints.

This is curious. Although the gap between rich and poor is still a cause for concern in China, the country has improved the living conditions of its poorest inhabitants. As the World Bank recently pointed out, in recent years China’s poverty-reduction policies have had unexpected success. Uneven distribution of wealth notwithstanding, China is making tremendous progress in the fight against poverty.

However, the fact that Chinese citizens’ sense of well-being is not increasing in line with wealth indicates that society is unstable – and that wealth is not the problem.

I personally believe that the problem lies with the goal we are striving to achieve. We consider wealth acquisition the only target worth pursuing. It is not wrong to make money, as long as the latter is merely regarded as the means to achieve a goal, and not as the goal itself. Nowadays, the work of government functionaries is exclusively assessed on the basis of economic performance, and the central aim of local government is to achieve GDP growth targets.

However, in spite of a rapid increase in wealth, the degree of satisfaction amongst Chinese people is still low. This highlights the fact that wealth does not lead directly to happiness.

The Chinese government has recently set the strategic goal of building a “harmonious society”. But harmony is too vague a notion to be scientific and quantifiable. From an economic perspective, the general pattern of increased wealth that China has followed over the last 30 years perfectly embodies the “Pareto improvement” theory. A “Pareto improvement” occurs when there is a change in the allocation of resources that makes one person better off without making anybody else worse off. For example, imagine an elderly lady who sells one of her chicken’s eggs to a customer who desires to eat it: both agents gain from this exchange, without hurting anyone. This is the advantage of a free market economy.

Similarly, how can a “harmonious society” achieve harmony? Not through the maximisation of wealth, but through the maximisation of happiness. That is, making at least one person happier without making others unhappy. If we popularise this concept in our society, we could succeed in increasing human happiness.

The Shanghai World Expo 2010 offers an analogy. It could have been an enjoyable event for everyone – but it wasn’t. The country and its leaders attained considerable prestige, and the authorities earned plenty of money. But visitors spent hours queuing outside the pavilions, waiting to attend the exhibits. This was totally predictable: the combined daily capacity of the pavilions was limited to less than 100,000 people, while the average daily attendance was estimated between 300,000 and 400,000 people. Three quarters of visitors were thus destined to wait outside.

Some people argue that limiting government power might improve society’s sense of well-being – but if privileged classes become unhappy, then the goal of maximising happiness fails. However, I think that even if, in the short term, the happiness of privileged classes falls, long-term happiness is still likely to increase. In the long run, the selfish pursuit of wealth to the detriment of others can be dangerous. Although justice is not always dispensed fairly, people are not discouraged from voicing their opinions and social unrest like that we have recently seen in Egypt will be difficult to prevent.

The maximisation of happiness has not yet become a widely shared goal because, today, information and opinion is not spread freely. Society is not sufficiently well educated and lacks tolerance towards value pluralism.   I hope that politicians will embrace the concept of well-being and put aside their pompous rhetoric, in order to focus better on the happiness of citizens.

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Default thumb avatar
gaidee

痛并快乐着

茅老先生认为和谐不够科学,原因是没办法“量化”,言外之意是快乐呢,可以“量化”,今天我9快乐,明天希望能够9.5快乐,等等。再搞个快乐指数用于评估咱们国家的“快乐”等级。但是不同的人有不同的快乐观,原因在于快乐是很个人的体验,没办法“统一”,就像没有两个人是一模一样的一样,硬要搞个这么不切实际的东西出来,看来,我们的学术界确实是出了大问题。快乐就是快乐,就是现在高兴,要最大化快乐,首先需要定义何为不快乐,以及如何消除不快乐,这么说来这个话题太大,世界上没有人能够说得明白,那么换句话说,这个问题不值得探讨。不值得探讨不是说就没有人快乐,即便有时候是“痛并快乐着”,这还是个很出名的作家的书名呢。

前阶段,有人提出来“普世价值”,周有光老先生呢,提出“世界大同”,一句话,就是什么问题大,提什么。看来,我们的改革开放到了这么个阶段,就是我们的知识分子已经没什么可以研究的了,非要把人生的意义弄个明白不可,结果把自己都搞糊涂了,因为这个问题凡人搞不明白,也或许没必要非要搞明白。

现在的世界是建立在逐利的基础上的,不管你是养鸡的还是买蛋的,都需要交换。虽然通过交易大家都各取所需,获得了部分快乐,但是这个交易演化下去,不就是我们现在这个样子嘛。这就是经济学的可以预见的结果,没什么需要诧异的,也许问题在于现在我们的人民的快乐总和是零,你多了,我就少了,但是能不能实现像买卖鸡蛋那样的快乐双赢呢,情况只有一种:一个饿死了的有钱人,花一万块钱买两个茶叶蛋。

Painfully happy

The Reverent Mr. Mao holds that harmony is not a scientific concept in that it cannot be "quantified", implying that happiness, on the other hand, can be "quantified". Like I'm 90% happy today and hope to be 95% happy tomorrow, etc. Maybe a happiness index can be invented to measure the degree of happiness of our country, too. But different people have different concepts of happiness, because happiness is a very personal experience. There's no way to "unify" it, as no two people are exactly the same. To force such an unrealistic concept on us seems an indication of the immensely problematic condition of our academic field. Happiness is happiness is happiness, which means to be happy now and here and the maximization of it. The discussion may require the definition of unhappiness and the elimination of it at first, but this is such a big topic that nobody in the world can fathom it. That is to say, the discussion is not worth it. But the fact that it's not worth the discussion doesn't mean people are all unhappy, even though sometimes they are "painfully happy", which is actually a book title of some famous author. (Note of translator: the expression first appeared in a pop song composed by Taiwanese singer Qi Qin and then was borrowed profusely by others for its fresh oxymoronic effect.)

Recently, some people suggested "universal values ". The Reverent Mr. Zhou You Guang put forward "one world". In a nutshell, the more profound the problem is, the keener the discussion. It appears that the reform and opening up has come to such a stage that our intellectuals have nothing to research on, and are only bent on finding out the meaning of life, about which they themselves are finally muddleheaded, because there's no way for us mortal beings to understand the philosophical issue , or maybe it's not necessary to understand it.

The practical world is built on the basis of profit pursuit, exchange is necessary whether you are raising chicken or buying the egg. While everyone gets what they want through the transaction, and acquires some portion of happiness, the transaction will continue and evolve into something like what we are now. This is the predictable result of economics, and it's not surprising at all. Perhaps the problem is the sum of happiness of our people now is zero, you get more means I get less. But can we not achieve happiness in the way of win-win like the sale of eggs? There's only one possibility: a starving rich man spends ten thousand yuan for two boiled tea-flavoured eggs.

Default thumb avatar
yugong

痛并快乐着?

我不认为Gaidee的评论合乎情理。首先,就快乐而言,它是主观的,但人们对调查有回应,他们知道自己是否快乐。2000年的时候,宗教与哲学就某一点达成了一致——一旦基本需求达到了满足,更多的金钱并不会带来更多的快乐,然而某些其他的东西却能够做到(例如,爱,社交活动,良善,创造力,尊重)。其次,他关于“饿死了的有钱人与两个鸡蛋“的观点——或许是翻译的问题,但恕我不能明白。或许他能够向我等理解力迟钝的人解释清楚?

Painfully Happy?

I don't think that Gaidee's post makes any sense at all. First of all, on happiness, obviously it is subjective but people respond to inquiry. They know whether they are happy or not and for millenia there has been a consensus in religion and philosophy that once basic needs are met, more money does not bring more happiness, compared to other things (like love, socialising, kindness, creativity, respect etc). Secondly, his point about the starving rich man and the two eggs -- perhaps its a translation thing but I don't get it. Maybe he could explain to the slower witted amongst us?