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Matthew D. Adler and Marc Fleurbaey (eds), Oxford Handbook of Well-being and Public Policy

Stéphane Zuber
p. 597-601
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Matthew D. Adler and Marc Fleurbaey (eds), Oxford Handbook of Well-being and Public Policy, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 984 pages, ISBN 978-0-19-932581-8

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The Oxford Handbook of Well-Being and Public PolicyAfficher l’image
Crédits : Oxford University Press

1This Handbook of Well-Being and Public Policy (henceforth “the Handbook”) is a voluminous–almost 1,000 pages–collection of review essays and original contributions pertaining to the following general question: How to evaluate policy in light of individual well-being? The common starting point is the recently burgeoning public debate on the need to develop alternative methods for public policy assessment that would go beyond the most common tools of economic analysis, such as the GDP or cost-benefit analysis. In particular, many scholars and policy-makers have argued that human well-being cannot be reduced, even as a first approximation, to material well-being (measured by monetary quantities, such as income, wealth, or consumption). There are also growing concerns that distributive matters are not adequately accounted for, and that policy assessment should focus more on inequality and poverty issues.

2The Handbook “seeks to provide a treatment of these questions that is at once comprehensive, deep, and accessible” (page 1). To do so, it is divided into four parts. The first two parts mainly contain synthesis chapters that aim at reviewing the state of academic knowledge on 1) the major tools used for policy analysis; 2) the main definitions of human well-being. Part 3 purports to present recent debates or proposals. Part 4 deals with specific issues raising challenges for policy assessment.

3Part 1 presents several methods of policy assessment, including standard methods (GDP, cost-benefit analysis). But it also proposes more recent developments such as multidimensional inequality and poverty measures, social ordering functions or happiness-based assessment tools. The chapters in this part are mostly based on mainstream economic analysis and involve formal developments. Although the authors try to limit the use of mathematical tools, the chapters are intended for readers with a minimal acquaintance with formal economic analysis. That being said, most chapters are remarkable in their ability to synthesize a very large literature and to convey the state-of-the-art scholarship on the topics they cover. In particular, the chapters by R. Boadway on “Cost-benefit analysis” and by F.A. Cowell on “Inequality measures” could almost be used as textbook resources for any introductory class on the matter. It is nice that less standard approaches like fair allocation rules (Chapter 7), social ordering functions (Chapter 8), multidimensional inequality measures (Chapter 9), or happiness-based methods (Chapter 10) are introduced at this stage, although most readers will not be familiar with them, so that it is difficult to present them in a few pages.

4What is perhaps missing in this part is a synthesis chapter that would try to relate the different approaches to one another and explain why and how a specific approach may be more appropriate for some specific set of issues than the others. The editors discuss a little bit this matter in the introduction (pages 3-5). They rightly point out that all methods may be related in some way to a general social welfare function framework. What they mean by “general social welfare function framework” is a framework where policy analysis is decomposed into two parts: 1) indices of individual outcomes, which are usually described as individual well-being measures (but may be only proxies for well-being or even objective measures of how people fare); 2) an aggregation rule that evaluates the distribution of individual indices (and may focus on different aspects of this distribution). Such a general social welfare function framework implies some of the biases of the policy analysis methods that are described in the Handbook: 1) they are broadly speaking consequentialist (they focus on outcomes); 2) they are “speciesist”, in the sense that they only focus on consequences for humans; 3) they are individualistic. However, these biases are not limitations of the Handbook: even within the scope set by the assumptions given above, the Handbook proves that there is a large variety of different approaches that deserve rigorous analysis and discussion.

5Part 2 of the Handbook deals with different conceptions of well-being that have been proposed and used in the literature, namely preference-based views, objective good views, mental state views, and subjective well-being views. The five chapters that compose this part contain very comprehensive and synthetic review essays on each approach. They clearly define what the approach is about, what are the arguments in favor of the approach and what are the objections or difficulties it faces. In particular, the standard preference-based approach endorsed by mainstream economic analysis (i.e., using “utility functions” that are both metric of well-being and representations of preferences) has been recently challenged by the surge of research on the “economics of happiness”. As D.M. Haydon (Chapter 12) points out, “there is no consensus on the proper understanding of happiness”, and it is a great contribution of the Handbook to discuss both mental state approaches and different kinds of subjective well-being approaches (there are actually two chapters on subjective well-being views, that highlight the respective contributions of economics and psychology on that matter). It is also important to include objective good accounts of well-being, that may be less known by economists although recent research on multidimensional inequality measurement may be related to that kind of approach to well-being. In his chapter on “Objective goods” (Chapter 13), T. Hurka discusses in details the links between that account and the capabilities approach by A. Sen and M. Nussbaum, that has become important in debates on inequality and poverty.

6While Parts 1 and 2 of the Handbook are composed of a series of survey chapters, Part 3 proposes to introduce recent debates or proposals related to policy evaluation. Actually, Part 3 can itself be divided into two subparts. A first set of chapters include Chapters 16 to 19 and 21. Chapters 16, 17, 18 and 21 study in detail the practical challenges and implications of using specific recent approaches to policy evaluation (in particular, preference-based views such as the equivalent income measurement of utility or the extended-preference approach, as well as the subjective well-being and the capability views). Chapter 19, by K. Decancq and D. Neumann, compares these different approaches empirically by focusing on the question of identifying who are the worst-offs according to different views on the measurement of well-being. In my opinion, this chapter is remarkable and gives precious insights on why it matters in practice to discuss the different approaches to individual well-being. The authors define being worst-off as being part of the 9.2% people at the bottom of the distribution of well-being. They show that only 0.9% of the population that they study are deemed worst-off according to all their measures of individual well-being. This means that only very few people would be tagged as poor whatever the account of well-being one has in mind. Thus, there is only very partial overlap between the different approaches, which suggests that the choice of a well-being measure does matter a lot for policy analysis.

7The rest of Part 3 is composed of chapters focusing on more general debates about whether a multidimensional approach to well-being and poverty measurement should be adopted, and if so, how it should be implemented. These chapters contain interesting criticisms and proposals, and they give a flavor of the most recent research on the topics covered by the Handbook.

8Part 4 of the Handbook presents a series of challenges for all policy analysis methods: the presence of risk (Chapter 24 by P. Mongin and M. Pivato), individual responsibility (Chapter 25 by F. Ferreira and V. Peragine), preference heterogeneity (Chapter 26 by P. Rao), household size (Chapter 27 by P.A. Chiappori), preference inconsistency (Chapter 28 by E. Shafir), lifetime well-being (Chapter 29 by G. Ponthière), and future generations (Chapter 30 by J. Broome). These challenges concern many different issues actually addressed by public policies, e.g., education policy, environmental policy, taxation, and public insurance schemes. Some of these issues concern more the preferentialist approach to well-being, but others, like household size, future generations, or individual responsibility—and the related and topical question of the equality of opportunity—are quite general and fundamental. Note that the issue of future generations points to the issue of the scope of policy analysis (who is included, when looking at the impact of a policy). This suggests another problem not discussed in the Handbook, namely, the geographical scope of policy analysis and whether foreign citizens should be included. This problem is of particular importance for refugees’ policy, but also for many environmental policies with potential effects beyond the boundaries of countries.

9Although the chapters in Part 4 cover extensively the issues at hand from a theoretical and a conceptual point of view, one can regret that there are not more empirical investigations or illustrations of the issues at hand (an exception being Chapter 25, that presents several empirical studies about the inequality of opportunity). Specific policy schemes may raise important issues from a methodological point of view. For instance, prevention in health policy raises the problem of how to compare a reduction in risk (say, the probability to have a condition or illness) with a monetary cost. If the risk is a mortality risk, then the standard tool is the value of a statistical life. This is only briefly touched upon in Chapter 3 on cost-benefit analysis and Chapter 10 on QUALY-based cost-effectiveness analysis, and it would have deserved more developments in Chapter 24 and 29. Similarly, the valuation of non-market goods other than health, in particular, environmental amenities or biodiversity, are key questions for many real-world policy, but they are only briefly discussed in Chapter 3 on cost-benefit analysis and Chapter 10 on happiness-based policy analysis.

10Despite these minor regrets, my overall assessment of the Handbook is clearly very positive. The editors have managed to gather some of the best scholars to produce the most up-to-date and comprehensive synthesis on policy analysis, using different well-being approaches, and representing a large variety of ethical views. The Handbook is methodologically diverse, which may make some chapters less accessible to some readers. But, as the editors mention in their introduction, this is inherent to a general approach that seeks to benefit from scholarship across several fields, including philosophy, economics, psychology, and political science. In my opinion, the challenge of engaging in truly interdisciplinary discussions is met, and I believe that the Handbook is accessible to any reader with sufficient interest and minimal knowledge of the issues at hand. One can only hope that readers will follow the example set by the Handbook by choosing to develop and expand such interdisciplinary discussions and, perhaps, by combining in new ways the inputs from various fields.

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Stéphane Zuber, « Matthew D. Adler and Marc Fleurbaey (eds), Oxford Handbook of Well-being and Public Policy », Œconomia, 7-4 | 2017, 597-601.

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Stéphane Zuber, « Matthew D. Adler and Marc Fleurbaey (eds), Oxford Handbook of Well-being and Public Policy », Œconomia [En ligne], 7-4 | 2017, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2017, consulté le 22 janvier 2018. URL :

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Stéphane Zuber

Paris School of Economics - CNRS.

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