Chapter 3 Efficiency and Wellbeing


A principal rationale for public policy is to address market failures. Pareto efficiency is therefore a highly common and relatively non-controversial evaluative criterion for many policy analyses and is discussed at length in policy analysis texts. This makes sense, for Pareto improvements involve making at least one person better off without making anyone worse off. Who could object to that? But does efficiency deserve the prominence it enjoys in public policy? Is one policy option better than another, at least in one respect, simply because it is more Pareto efficient? Or, is efficiency valuable for some other reason? In this chapter, I discuss Pareto efficiency as an evaluative criterion and argue that it is a stand-in for a more foundational criterion: wellbeing. I begin with an overview of Pareto efficiency, discuss the various ways in which it is operationalized to evaluate policy options, and argue that it is valuable insofar as more efficient states of affairs promise more wellbeing than less efficient states of affairs. I then raise questions regarding whether the conception of wellbeing presupposed by Pareto efficiency – preference satisfaction – is a defensible conception of wellbeing. I go on to introduce three alternative conceptions of wellbeing which have been proposed and defended by both philosophers and policy scholars, namely, hedonism, objective goods views, and the capability approach, and suggest ways in which each can be operationalized as an evaluative criterion. I close by discussing four ‘theory-free’ approaches to thinking about the impact of policies on the quality of people’s lives. Such approaches reject the idea that there is one single theory of wellbeing that should be used to evaluate policy options, and instead develop ways to evaluate the impact of policies on people’s lives that are not grounded in a specific theory.

Author's Profile

Douglas MacKay
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill


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