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Were People in the Past Poor and Miserable?

  • Charles Kenny

Standard economic theory would suggest close linkages between income, broader measures of the quality of life and 'utility'. To some extent it is hard to test the link between income and utility given the way that utility is proxied by economists, but we do have measures of objective and subjective wellbeing as a potential guide. When we look at broader measures of objective and subjective wellbeing in both rich and poor countries today, the relationship to absolute income is perhaps surprisingly weak. Turning to the past, we know that most people were in an absolute income sense very poor, and faced a considerably lower broad quality of life using objective measures. However, the link between these two factors is not as straightforward as sometimes assumed. At the same time, from the preoccupations of political thinkers and others, it does appear that relative (rather than absolute) income has long been a concern, and that concerns with absolute income at the national level appear to center around avoiding absolute deprivation rather than the advantage of ever more consumption goods. In short, there is plentiful evidence that people in the past were nearly all absolutely poor and broadly worse off according to other objective quality of life measures, less evidence that these two were intimately linked, even less that everyone was miserable, and less again that those who did feel miserable felt so because they were absolutely poor. Copyright 2006 Blackwell Publishing Ltd..

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Article provided by Wiley Blackwell in its journal Kyklos.

Volume (Year): 59 (2006)
Issue (Month): 2 (05)
Pages: 275-306

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Handle: RePEc:bla:kyklos:v:59:y:2006:i:2:p:275-306
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