Greg Mankiw notes a new paper:
By many objective measures the lives of women in the United States have improved over the past 35 years, yet we show that measures of subjective well-being indicate that women’s happiness has declined both absolutely and relative to men. The paradox of women’s declining relative well-being is found across various datasets, measures of subjective well-being, and is pervasive across demographic groups and industrialized countries. Relative declines in female happiness have eroded a gender gap in happiness in which women in the 1970s typically reported higher subjective well-being than did men. These declines have continued and a new gender gap is emerging — one with higher subjective well-being for men.
Of course, we should all be happy in these gender egalitarian times that women no longer lord it over men in terms of their subjective happiness. As we all know, proper equality insists that we are all as miserable as each other rather than allowing any one group to be better off in any manner.
However, there shouldn’t really be any surprise at this finding, not amongst those who have absorbed the second thing everyone needs to know about economics: that there are always opportunity costs.
It’s true that women were restricted in the life choices that they could make only a few decades ago. A serious career was incompatible with marriage not all that long ago, a generation or two, and while that did get milder, it’s only recently that the wider society has believed that children and a career were both possible. That all such choices, career or no, children or no, are seen as socially acceptable (even if the combinations might not be all that easy to carry off) this is an advance in the choices open to women and thus their liberty.
Hurrah! More liberty is good.
However, no one has ever said that such will make us happier. For with more choices comes a problem: there are more things that we cannot do. One cannot be both a childless career woman and a stay at home mother. One cannot be a career woman with children and simultaneously be a career woman without. As the number of possible paths increases so must the number of paths not taken. And as we all know, the true cost of something is what you give up to get it.
So, taking any one path means forsaking all those other paths, those number of paths which have in recent decades been rising in numbers. Thus the paradox of choice, that more such can make us subjectively less happy. But if you ask people whether having fewer choices would make them happier, no one ever actually says that yes, it would.
Just as an example, does anyone seriously think that insisting that women either pursued careers or had children, with no blurring of the roles allowed, would be an acceptable limitation of liberty in a free society: even if it did make those women happier?
No, I thought not maybe subjective happiness isn’t the goal that society should be pursuing then?