Public Policy and Happiness

Grant Duncan

Let’s start with how we measure happiness. I don’t believe we should interpret social surveys literally, but there are some interesting results all the same. The countries with the highest average happiness results tend to be among the most affluent ones, so we shouldn’t buy into the idea that the people of the poorer nations are somehow happier than those of us who are supposedly stressed out by living in a developed country.

But the poorer or less developed countries are not always very far behind in terms of average happiness, either. Economic prosperity does correlate positively – though not strongly – with happiness scores. But neither can we say that wealth causes happiness. Other factors, such as racial discrimination or civil war, which also hinder economic prosperity, affect how people feel about their lives.

What message does this send to governments? Since the end of World War 2, governments in developed nations have done a lot to improve health-care and education, to protect public safety, to give access to information, and to give legal protection from discrimination, violence and abuse. Health-care in the 1940s was primitive when compared with today’s technologies.

At the same time, real measurable gains have been made in longevity and morbidity rates, and educational levels and participation rates have improved, along with literacy levels. Developed nations have greater security and variety in food sources, and have many new technologies, that are easily accessible, for staying in contact with the people who matter to us, and liberal-market policies have made it possible for us to acquire labour-saving household devices. Of course there have been problems too, such as economic recessions, unemployment, chronic illness and crime. But, overall, well-being in the developed nations has been holding up well, if not improving.

And yet, despite these improvements in the efficiency and quality of public services and in real social and health outcomes, we are no happier, if we believe the surveys. So, if expanding markets have not caused a growth in surveyed happiness, then there is little point in expecting public policy to take up the cause of the pursuit of happiness, because it looks like the improvement and expansion of public services and more efficient regulation – which all require economic growth for finance – also fail to enhance aggregate happiness.

The problems become interesting in an age of focus-group-driven policy. British PM David Cameron has co-opted a point that was a favourite of left-wing green and feminist critics: ‘GDP is an incomplete way of measuring a country’s progress,’ he said. It’s ironical to hear a conservative leader say this not long after the biggest economic crash since the Great Depression. Now that we’re all poorer, it’s a welcome distraction from reality to say that wealth isn’t everything after all, and we should think instead about what life and happiness are really all about.

But does the Recession not show us that, in a capitalist world, economic growth really does matter more than anything else? – and not just for those who lost life-savings, or were bankrupted or made redundant. I’ve yet to hear of any happiness survey purporting to show that most people are happier because of, or happy in spite of, the Recession. And meanwhile governments have used the Recession to annex significant economic institutions and assets, effecting a huge increase in their executive powers under the doctrines of emergency and necessity, while enriching those considered ‘too big to fail,’ and impoverishing those who don’t really matter much.

One doesn’t have to be especially insightful to have noticed that the restoration of ailing economies to a steady growth pattern is in fact the over-riding objective of governments today. At Copenhagen, the world’s leaders failed to come up with a solution to global warming, and hence they may have imperilled a great portion of the human race; but – who cares? – at least they were prompt in deciding to bail out the banks, at great cost to tax-payers. The Left meanwhile, citing Keynes, was much more pleased about this than the laissez-faire Right. The Left apparently felt relieved that governments were becoming more activist again, if only to save the economy – which meant saving wealthy bankers from ruin, and not saving poor people from foreclosure.

Meanwhile David Cameron is asking the UK’s national statistician ‘to devise a new way of measuring well-being in Britain’ [emphasis added]. It looks like Mr Cameron envisages a wider set of indicators than a narrowly defined happiness-index. Perhaps they’ll produce something like our own Social Report. He argues though that ‘you can’t legislate for fulfilment or satisfaction, but I do believe government has the power to help improve well-being.’

The provision of public schools and hospitals seems to support that idea – but Cameron’s government is bent on cutting public-sector budgets, shedding thousands of jobs and making university students pay ruinous fees. It’s hard to predict quite what his government would have the power to achieve in social policy under such straightened circumstances, other than to pass many responsibilities over to private enterprise or voluntary services, or to consumers themselves. Cameron’s ‘big society’ moves beyond the capitalist idea of making people perform more for less pay, to the social-capital idea of making them do more voluntarily – for no remuneration at all.

Retrospective evidence suggests, however, that affluent populations are made subjectively more satisfied or happy by neither economic growth nor better public services. It may be that populations like the British and ourselves are as happy as they can be, and nothing can make them happier, for all we know. There is no prospective research evidence that either confirms or disconfirms hypotheses of the kind: if a government changes a certain set of policies in a certain direction, people get happier. Despite the recent public protests in the UK, Cameron’s happiness surveys may well register no significant changes up or down, if past trends are anything to go by.

It is intriguing, but unsurprising, that some politicians and some economists have lost confidence in the idea that individualistic choices in a competitive market are the main road to well-being. But a political party is deluding itself if it believes that public policy reform is going to lead to greater life-satisfaction and that they (the politicians) are going to reap the rewards at subsequent elections.

In as much as governments may be held responsible for both the economy and public services, any government of any hue is setting itself up for blame and dissatisfaction from voters if they treat happiness and life-satisfaction as criteria or goals of primary public importance to policy decision-making.

Now, this is no excuse for dropping the ball in the game of economic policy and improving public services. It makes no sense at all to say that, if nothing governments do will make people happier, then nothing new is worth doing. It would be reasonable to predict that economic recession and corrupt or incompetent government would be a cause of considerable dissatisfaction for most people. Just think of Zimbabwe.

In a tolerably prosperous country, better policy probably doesn’t lead to happier populations; but at the same time, you don’t need to think about happiness in order to justify public policy or governance reforms.

The best policy need not be chosen on the grounds of what might produce a happy citizen; and, even if governments could aim to make a happy citizen, this may not necessarily help us to make a good citizen. There may be few things that would make many of us happier than to avoid paying tax, for instance.

In so far as citizens come to be treated as consumers with wants and needs, as people in search of, and deserving of, satisfaction and happiness, then the policy-making process too will be condemned to a treadmill of unfulfillable aims. The more that citizens come to see themselves as consumers whose needs for satisfaction were supposed to be fulfilled by governments, the more they will probably end up blaming governments for their failure to do that. It may be that that is exactly what has already happened.

At the very least, there is something absurd about trying to put a smile on the face of Leviathan. Maybe we should shun consumer-driven utilitarian government; we should avoid the idea that happiness survey results are a criterion by which to judge what it’s best for governments to do; and we can look for alternative rationalities for doing well in public service. Perhaps the old-fashioned idea of citizenship and governance based on rights and duties wasn’t so bad after all.

We do look to our political leaders and our public services to represent, and to provide for, values which reflect some version of a ‘good society’ (or a ‘good-enough society’) that we can, at least, tolerate, if not enjoy and uphold. The complex governing systems of laws, regulations and public services that we grow up with do condition our expectations about what that ‘good society’ is supposed to look like. But, in a society with freedom of expression, we openly and critically appraise how well that may or may not be achieved. Ideological discord is inherent in this process of public evaluation. The subject who complains to the governor is an already-governed subject, moreover; so it’s not as if such public debate starts out from a clean slate of a priori goals, preferences and needs.

There is no end of history, no equilibrium, and no ideal set of policies. There is no Utopia. Happiness may well enter the debate as a factor, but I suggest that it should not be taken seriously as an over-riding aim for the choices facing governments. We (the people) should reject the idea that the State can or should create the mirror of, let alone the stairway to, our personal happiness.

Although many people may dislike the messy business of politics, there is no substitute, in a democracy, for open debate and disagreement about the values that guide public policy decisions. There is no over-arching universal and measurable goal that can trump all opinions, cultural differences and ideological discord.

Furthermore, we live in a time that experiences global catastrophes – and we can be sure that there will be more to come. Economic, environmental and social disasters of kinds that we can’t yet clearly imagine probably await us. After all, who was really anticipating 9/11, or Fukushima, or Egypt? No-one really was, I suggest; and yet these are the kinds of events that change our priorities. Political decisions helped to create such risks; and political decisions are needed in response to the consequences. Now, there’s an imperative for governments!

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