Quality of Life (1) – Introduction

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I’ve got out of the habit of blogging my responses to the Lib Dem policy consultation papers of late but the Quality of Life one caught my eye and I thought I’d have a stab at it.

My overall response is that, while I applaud the party for wanting to tackle this issue and personally consider it to be very important, the direction that the consultation paper is taking somewhat concerns me. Unlike some, I don’t think this is an area where government should not intervene, but it needs to be realistic about what it can achieve and it would be better off taking fewer, more strategic decisions than attempting to meddle with every little issue.

I’m also increasingly coming to the conclusion that equality and quality of life are flipsides of the same coin (it is no coincidence that most people who disregard the former also dismiss the latter). To tackle one is to tackle the other, and vice versa. Having entirely seperate consultations on the two areas – the equality consultation begins at the next conference – is to a certain extent redundant.

Anyway, without further ado, here is my response. I will try to contain my comments to the questions in the paper (although such questions always irritate me so I am bound to drift off topic):

1. Should government be more concerned to increase their citizens’ wellbeing than their wealth? What is the proper role of government in promoting quality of life?

The answer to the first question is most definitely yes, but few would subscribe to the notion that wealth and wellbeing are entirely unrelated. Having recently read The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, some of the most compelling charts they print in that book are the ones where they compare the GDP of countries with life expectency (page 7) and happiness (page 9). What these charts show are that GDP, life expectency and happiness are related up to a certain point (around $25,000 per capita) and then level off. From that point onward, equality becomes a more defining factor.

So my tentative answer to the second question is that the role of government is to foster a political economy that is both healthy and where people are relatively equal. But it is absolutely crucial that the way we achieve that equality is itself equitable.

2. Should governments concentrate on minimising misery rather than augmenting happiness? If so, do they need to do more or less?

This is a bit of a silly question. I would answer that our goal should be more about “minimising misery” than “augmenting happiness” since the latter sounds a bit too Brave New World for my taste. But I’m not entirely convinced that the government should be especially concerned with either per se.

I’ve always been wary of the term “happiness” and its utilitarian ties. I understand that a lot of people use happiness and well-being as interchangeable terms but this question somewhat suggests that the author is thinking of happiness in rather more simplistic terms.

There are a variety of things we should be seeking to maximise: liberty, self-confidence, trust in society, questioning of authority, a sense of being in control of one’s life (indeed, I don’t think you can have the former without the latter four – others disagree). These are things we should be concerning ourselves with, not gross “happiness”.

3. Are the ways our public services work detrimental to our quality of life?

In a lot of ways, yes. Far too often they undermine our need for self-control, demand unquestioning obedience and assume that society is a dark and sinister place. They need to be as transparent, accountable and democratic as possible and controlled at the lowest possible level.

4. What additional or alternative indicators should government use in place of GDP?

There are lots of different indicators we could use. The debate about alternative indicators has been going on for at least as long as I’ve been involved in politics. It hasn’t got very far, partially because I think it misses the point.

I have a far stronger indicator for the state of the economy than GDP. It’s called the Maltesers Index. I’ve noticed that over the last six months, an increasing number of shops I walk into are trying to flog me packets of sweets at discount prices. Borders appear to have forgotten that their main trade is in books. The last time I walked into a WH Smiths you could barely reach the counter for all the bargain bins of confectionary they had put in front of it. I have a fairly good understanding of the economics of why that is, but I wouldn’t want the MI to guide national policy for the simple fact that the government could massively improve their figures by banning Maltesers. This wouldn’t actually help the economy – it would make things worse. What’s more I like Maltesers.

We can find all sorts of measurements, but they will always be open to abuse because they are prone to being gamed. What’s more, they have to feel real to people. Two major quality of life indicators have dominated public policy for decades – reported crime and the British Crime Survey – yet they are rarely referred to as such. Politicians tend to emphasise whichever of the two figures that are more helpful to them (in my view the BCS is better but it isn’t without its flaws) and the result is that we tend to distrust both of them. You could say the same about unemployment figures.

The fact is, government measures lots of things. We could measure a few more things but I’m not convinced it will change much. The best indicator in my book is the record of votes cast for whom in each election. We should try having an electoral system that reflects it at some point.

5. People are often bad predictors of what will improve their own quality of life. What role should government play here? What happens if our liberal commitments to equality and freedom of choice appear to conflict with our desire to enable to enjoy a good quality of life?

This is a question that is crying out for a “for instance”. The simple answer is “it depends.”

Yes, people are often bad predictors of what will improve their own quality of life, but governments are too. I’m not convinced that the solution is for the government to step in and meddle with every single solution. We need the government to be looking at more strategic shifts. This is why, for me, equality is such a big deal. The evidence before us suggests that by managing this shift, we could improve a whole range of social and health indicators in a way that hundreds of government programmes have been unable to match.

For the most part, the role of government should be to mitigate bad personal choices, not to prevent them. That of course brings in the question of moral hazard and there should certainly be a cost for making mistakes. But that isn’t the same thing as letting people rot.

Drugs policy is an excellent example. We know that taking drugs such as cocaine and heroin is generally not a very good idea, leading to addiction, the risk of overdose and mental health issues. Yet all attempts to restrict this choice have backfired. Yet all the experiments involving legalisation to one degree or another suggest that such an approach leads to fewer social problems and even less drug useage. Part of the lesson here is that by allowing people to make wrong choices and picking them up off the floor when they do, we enable them to make right choices in future instead of getting stuck in a cycle of desperation and criminality.

The real challenge to freedom of choice is the much cited tragedy of the commons, but I’m not convinced that simply removing choice or even costing in externalities will be the solution. Apart from anything else, such moves are not popular and the parties that propose easy solutions are the ones that tend to win at the ballot box. Mark van Vugt wrote an interesting article in New Scientist a couple of weeks ago challenging this and proposing an alternative approach, suggesting four “i”s: information, identity, institutions and incentives. Ultimately, if individual choices tend to be flawed then it is the role of the state to help inform those choices. In the longer term that will be more effective.

One thought on “Quality of Life (1) – Introduction

  1. James

    I think you will find that equality has been crucial to the thinking surrounding the development of the Quality of Life PWG. As you so rightly say, they are two sides of the same coin. The challenge for us is to convince the winners in the present system that they would actually also have a better quality of life if we had more equal society. My fear at the moment, with the clamour to slash public services, is that as always, it will be the poorest in our society who will inevitably take the brunt.

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