Of our 16 panel members, 6 agreed with Statement 1 (none “completely agreed”), while 3 disagreed or completely disagreed; 7 were neutral.
Reasons for agreement included the conceptual and practical merits of the concept and its ability to aid policymakers in prioritising investments (unlike some other wellbeing approaches such as the dashboard approach of the OECD):
- Relative to GDP, WELLBYs (i.e. life satisfaction) have a “stronger connection to policy implications” and align better with the core maximand of economics (i.e. human welfare)” (Gigi Foster).
- “The concept is clear, well measurable and has public appeal”(Ruut Veenhoven).
- “It seems that more and more countries are realising that the OECD wellbeing framework, whilst appropriate for helping us to think about wellbeing, is not practicable for making policy trade-offs” (Christian Krekel).
- “It is the only tool available at the moment for bureaucracies who want to do wellbeing-inclusive cost-benefit analysis” (Paul Frijters).
Some of those who agreed, however, questioned the pace at which the WELLBY approach may be adopted by the bureaucracy:
- Given that some policymakers will not be satisfied with its technical merits or may not ascribe to a utilitarian philosophical stance, “the most likely trajectory is one of gradual acceptance of the WELLBY” (Arthur Grimes).
- “While I think that this will eventually happen, … it will not be ‘soon’ (but rather, in ten to fifteen years, after which the WELLBY cost-benefit and cost-effectiveness methodologies will be seen as equal to current methods” (Christian Krekel).
- It may also take actions of policy entrepreneurs for WELLBYs to gain acceptance: “The pharmaceutical industry played an important role supporting, developing and using the QALY cost-benefit methodology!” (Daniela Andren).
Reasons for disagreement included both practical factors and a view that WELLBYs are tied to a specific philosophical approach which may not be shared widely:
- “This way overstates the speed at which bureaucracies work” (Arie Kapteyn).
- The WELLBY is irrelevant for small-scale decisions, while “large-scale decisions that involve complicated trade-offs are determined not by any sort of technocratic calculation, but by the preferences of voters and of other powerful players” (Guy Mayraz).
- “Anglo-British countries have a strong utilitarian/welfarist tradition, on which cost-benefit analysis rests – no matter whether being based on the WELLBY metric or otherwise. This does not seem to be the case in many other countries” which place greater emphasis on “inalienable rights of the individual … irrespective of any welfarist considerations.” Decisions such as policy reactions to Covid-19 “will not be left to a bureaucracy on the basis of a formal WELLBY appraisal” (Heinz Welsch).
Many of those who were neutral similarly argued that, while the concept has merits, policymakers may be wary to adopt it – either because of the assumptions on which it is built (Jordi Quoidbach) or because they will be cautious in the short term (Dan Benjamin, Tony Beatton, William Tov):
- “There are still too many open questions” (Ronnie Schoeb).
- “I do not think we are quite there yet” (Martin Binder).
There was broader agreement with Statement 2, with 8 panel members “completely agreeing”, 6 “agreeing,” and 2 who “neither agreed not disagreed”. No panel member disagreed with the statement.
Reasons for agreement included the inherent breadth of factors that contribute to life satisfaction and hence to WELLBY calculations, and the practicality of using life satisfaction to incorporate these factors into policy analysis:
- “Sometimes current CBA calculations give some weight to environmental issues, but mostly these calculations do not take into account mental health, social relations as well as any aspect that is important to individuals’ self-reported wellbeing.” Without WELLBYs, some of these factors may be missed. “For example, during Covid19, governments took decisions making trade-offs between the economy and the number of people in hospitals. They however ignored important issues, notably mental health” (Ada Ferrer-i-Carbonell).
- “Mental health and social relationships … play a huge role in people's well-being. By focusing on actual wellbeing rather than abstract preferences, these factors will gain more weight with the WELLBY approach” (Jordi Quoidbach).
- “More traditional economic methods typically do not account at all for mental health and social relations, and only sometimes do they account for the environment. These factors all matter to some extent in the WELLBY methodology, especially mental health” (Dan Benjamin).
- “Conceptually, social CBA already incorporates factors such as mental health, social relations and the environment into a CBA. … However, the WELLBY approach provides a practical way of incorporating some of these non-market factors which may have previously been difficult to measure (Arthur Grimes).
- “Much consumption would be discounted by WELLBY (the ‘Easterlin Discount’), which would further have the impact of giving extra weight to mental health, social relations, and the environment” (Guy Mayraz).
- “The WELLBY captures and values such intangibles much better than attempts to put a monetary price tag onto things like social relationships, depression, or the environment. We know that these intangibles are incredibly important for wellbeing … so WELLBYs have a natural, competitive advantage over prices here” (Christian Krekel).
- “A wellbeing oriented framework forces the analysts who do cost-benefit analyses to look much more seriously at what improves wellbeing, and the answer turns out to give a large weight on social relations and the environment” (Paul Frijters).
Of those who remained neutral, comments included that WELLBYs may constitute an added measure (Arie Kapteyn) but the real test would be whether policymakers decide to use the information from WELLBYs in their actual policy decisions (William Tov). As an illustration, Tov asks whether governments would have responded differently if a WELLBY approach had been more salient? Nevertheless, it was also noted that contingent valuation methods have broken through into the mainstream and are now widely accepted in health and environmental applications (Daniela Andren).
Even some who agreed with Statement 2, were cautious about the concept gaining the attention of governments:
- “The problem will be to get Governments to listen. It has been hard enough to get them to consider Life Satisfaction; even the prompting of a couple of Nobel Prize winners, a Prime Minister and a President has proved unsuccessful over time” (Tony Beatton).
Panel members shared several other insightful comments.
Gigi Foster, for instance, warned against exclusive reliance on policymaking based on utilitarianism, lest this approach favours policies that most help the already advantaged.
Other comments by panel members included that while the use of WELLBYs will draw more attention to mental health and social bonds, which are important determinants of health and happiness, its use “will not generate more attention for environmental protection if that is not instrumental to human health and happiness” (Ruut Veenhoven).
Finally, a word of advice from Guy Mayraz for those who favour the introduction of WELLBYs for policy analysis: “The question about the future of WELLBY and similar ideas in the actual conduct of government could benefit from participation by people with experience in government. The theoretical advantages and disadvantages of WELLBY are only of secondary importance for this practical question.”