Why we should welcome David Cameron’s ‘Happiness Index’
Yesterday, ConservativeHome published an article which suggested that it is all part of a ‘European plot’, which was strange coming immediately after a blanket condemnation of ‘conspiracy nutters’.
It’s clearly a touchy subject, with the Mail’s ‘Black Dog’ reporting:
The Prime Minister’s spin doctor Andy Coulson has banned No 10 staff from referring to Dave’s laughable ‘Happiness Index’.Yet it is widely known that economic measures like wages, inflation and GDP are a wholly inadequate way of measuring much at all about a nation: according to US senator Robert Kennedy, GDP measures everything ‘except that which makes life worthwhile’.
Essex boy Coulson thinks the initiative, dreamed up by Cameron’s ‘branding’ guru Steve Hilton, is ‘airy fairy b*******’. He insists it keeps its dreary official ‘general wellbeing’ tag – in the hope that it is forgotten as quickly as most of Tory hippy Hilton’s other gimmicks.
And he has a point, for a rise in GDP is not necessarily a good thing. If thousands of people die from bird flu in one year, that gives a boost to undertakers and crematoria, and so increases GDP. Terrorism increases policing and security costs, and if we happen to go to war, the production of armaments and ammunition contributes to greater economic activity with a consequent boost to the nation’s GDP.
But these are hardly positive or beneficial contributions to the summum bonum.
There needs to be a more holistic method of measuring the ‘national mood’, and charging the Office of National Statistics with gauging ‘general wellbeing’ is a start.
And His Grace will tell you why.
And it has nothing to do with French gaîté, an EU plot or even the King of Bhutan.
He pointed out last week that the Tories began as a church party, concerned with the Church and State, in that order, before our concerns extended to the economy, free markets and many other fields which politics now touches.
The Church is concerned with the whole (or ought to be): a person’s economic situation is inseparable from their spiritual well-being. Man does not live by bread alone, but he’s a darn sight more receptive to salvation after a bit of bread and fish.
One has to go back to Locke and the inspiration for the American Declaration of Independence to understand where David Cameron is coming from:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.This ‘pursuit of happiness’ has nothing to do with job satisfaction, marital bliss, Ant & Dec or the feel-good induced by discerning the nation's favourite Abba song.
Locke’s notion of happiness is acutely linked to liberty.
It is not the task of government – least of all a Conservative government – to make people happy: it is the task of government to ensure that people are free to attain their objectives and fulfil their hopes and aspirations to make their own happiness.
As the Prime Minister has observed: "You cannot capture happiness on a spreadsheet any more than you can bottle it - and if anyone was trying to reduce the whole spectrum of human happiness into one snapshot statistic I would be the first to roll my eyes."
So let us give the man some credit for returning the Tory Party to its spiritual church roots and for seeking to measure progress not only by how the economy is growing, but by how the quality of life is improving; and that is fused with people’s sense of contentment, harmony and inner peace.
And it is not unlikely that this chimes with an EU objective, for the European Commission are acutely concerned with issues beyond the economic and always have been. What the UK was told was purely about trade was, for our continental neighbours, also about quality-of-life issues such as welfare, health, sustainability and social inclusion, which emanate from the Union’s foundation upon Roman Catholic Social Teaching.
And here’s the nexus of the matter.
The Christian religion has given Europe a scheme of values in which economic, social and penal policy have their place, but the understanding of these is inseparable from our historical roots. For through the Old Testament our spiritual roots go back to the early days of civilisation and man's search for God.
For England and for the United Kingdom, it has historically been the Protestant Reformed Religion which has provided us with our sense of ‘well-being’, for it has become inseparable from our sense of liberty. And that notion of liberty has a quite distinct theological lineage, not only from sin and the power of evil, but also in the Calvinist understanding of church governance – ‘liberty from Romish hierarchies’. According to Burke: 'To preserve that liberty inviolate, is the peculiar duty and proper trust of a member of the House of Commons.'
The ‘Happiness Index’ is ultimately a measurement of liberty. David Cameron, in his long-gone PPE days at Oxford, will have studied Locke and Mill and the philosophy of what we bequeathed to our American cousins in ‘the pursuit of happiness’. And he will know that happiness and autonomy are indivisible. Mill said: “The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way.” To be autonomous is to be able to reflect on and evaluate one’s desires, beliefs and values: we don’t just act; we choose how to act; we choose which goals to adopt, and we reflect on the reasons for our beliefs. By this, we can shape ourselves and our own lives; and if we shape ourselves according to our own values, we express our individuality.
Mill argued that ‘the free development of individuality is one of the leading essentials of well-being’. Leading our lives in our own way, making our own choices expresses and develops our thoughts, feelings and imagination. So, to be happy, we must be autonomous.
But that autonomy must be guided or ‘assisted’ towards good choices, moral choices, and Mill assumes that people will learn from their own and others’ mistakes. Autonomy which leads to bad or immoral choices will not produce happiness, so it is autonomy itself which is intrinsic to happiness.
The fons et origo of our ‘Gross National Happiness’ is a via media between Locke and Mill; between Liberalism and Toryism, and this is no bad thing for a Tory-Liberal Coalition to pursue.
But one comment in the ConservativeHome thread is worth observing:
As long as Cameron keeps paying my taxes to the EU and refuses an EU Referendum, I shall certainly be miserable.For a nation which is itself bound by alien rules and stifling regulations cannot pretend that its people are autonomous. And as long as they are not autonomous, they are not free. And as long as they are not free, they will not be happy.
Here, Mr Cameron, lies the potential zenith of your ‘Happiness Index’ and the glory of your premiership.