I have come round to reading at least the conclusion of Gregory Clark's A Farewell to Alms. A Brief Economic History of the World, much praised, even by Hans-Hermann Hoppe, who seems delighted to be able to draw (what, I presume, many of us would call) racist conclusions from reading it. See The Great Fiction (2/3).
At any rate, I am doing work on immigration at the moment, and found Clark mentioned in a good article on the topic: No Panaceas: Libertarian Challenges to Open Borders.
So, I decided to browse A Farewell to Alms and read the short concluding chapter "18: Conclusion: Strange New World."
I was surprised and disappointed. The main shortcoming of the chapter is its ill-conceived reliance as the main selling point on certain trite and superficial propositions of happiness research. Quite a let-down for a not so brief "brief economic history of the world".
Unfortunately there is little evidence of gains in happiness from gains in income, life expectancy, or health by society as a whole. (Clark, G. (2007), A Farewell to Alms, Princeton University Press, p. 374)
But why should we expect evidence to the contrary?
After all, there is a finite range of emotional intensity in experiencing inner states that convey happiness or its contrary. The range of emotional intensity is very likely an anthropological constant, which is to say, that Neanderthal man may have felt not much different than you and I upon having his teeth drilled or experiencing delight at the sight of his latest crush. When you come to think of it, we would hardly expect open-ended growth in a person's intensity of experiencing orgasmic bliss as a positive correlate of the steady increase in his income or net worth.
Incongruously, Clark prefaces the chapter with a quote from Henry Fielding that appears to be more reflective of my findings:
All Nature wears one universal grin.
At any rate, Clark goes on to point out that rich interviewees tend to indicate greater happiness than poor ones, but in a footnote he concedes that
the amount of variation in reported happiness ... is small, typically less than 5 percent. (Ibid. p. 374)
However, Clarke conjectures:
Perhaps, we are not designed to be content, but instead to forever compare our lot with that of our competitors, and to be happy only when we do better. (Ibid. p. 376)
While I am not sure contentment and happiness make a good synonym, I think, Clark is putting his finger on a crucial point. For I have been arguing for quite some time
what makes humans humans and separates them from other animals is their proclivity to adapt to their environment by developing and pursuing new desires. Humans are by definition and biological make-up not content with a situation where this proclivity is frustrated. The propensity to attempt the new (and be unhappy with failure to achieve it) is unlimited in human beings, rather than the ability to feel happy.
Envy is a derivative of this more fundamental human drive; while, of course, comparing oneself to others is not necessarily dishonourable, a resentful act or based on a sense of inferiority. We cannot be what we are and we cannot make the best of us without comparing a lot of things with a lot of things, including men with men.
For more see my post: Happiness and Freedom.
Clark then refers to Robert Frank who argues:
[S]ince the gains in happiness from higher income and consumption come only at the expense of the reduced happiness of those who lose out in such status races, much of the energy devoted to achieving higher incomes in any society is socially wasteful. (Ibid.)
A false metric that is not even significant is eagerly turned into a self-righteous moral demand, stoking the insatiable greed of the anti-capitalist sentiment:
The rich, the winners of the status races, should be heavily taxed to reduce such socially costly activity. (Ibid.)
By that reckoning, mankind will never know a farewell to alms - political propagandists and bad economists endeavouring to make sure indigence and beggarliness are as endogenous to our species as is the human grin.
However, Clark cautions:
But happiness studies so far do not support any such policy conclusion. Greater taxation of the rich might reduce income inequality, but it would not make societies as a whole happier. We lack trustworthy evidence that societies with greater income equality are on average happier. (Ibid. p. 377)