This article appeared in the 10 June 2011 edition of The Catholic Herald
It seems that everybody has got the happiness bug. The Prime Minister has made promoting “happiness”, or “general wellbeing” as he also describes it, a prime policy objective. Despite government spending cuts, the Office for National Statistics is spending large sums of money trying to work out how to measure how happy we are. The Archbishop of Westminster is impressed with the agenda too as is his Anglican counterpart. Vincent Nichols mentioned it both in a high profile article and in an important lecture at the London School of Economics where the chief academic proponent of this utilitarian philosophy is a professor.
The main attraction of the wellbeing agenda to today’s Christian left seems to be that they believe its promoters want to replace the maximisation of national income growth by the maximisation of national wellbeing. Indeed, Vincent Nichols explicitly welcomed this apparent change of emphasis.
This view is based on various fallacies. Governments have never tried to maximise economic growth. For example, most estimates suggest that national income growth would be maximised if the government spent between one fifth and three tenths of national income. Currently it spends over half. The government is clearly not trying to maximise economic growth – if it had been the whole trajectory of government spending in the post-war period would have been different. Not even the staunchest supporters of the modern welfare state, the restrictions on housing development and our extensive employment protection legislation would argue that these policies contribute to economic growth.
The reality is that government has always had a multitude of objectives. Economic growth had only one mention in the 36 page coalition document and no more than a cursory mention in any party’s 2010 election manifesto.
As it happens, it is interesting that the very latest research suggests that wellbeing does increase as income increases – previously it had been thought that this was not the case. An inside toilet, central heating and houses that are not damp in winter do actually seem to make us happier.
More generally, wellbeing data do not throw much light on anything. Measures of happiness do not increase as government spending increases or as the earning gap between males and females falls. Neither violent crime nor income inequality bears any obvious relationship to measured happiness. Perhaps most surprisingly, people who suffer very serious illnesses or disabilities seem to be as happy as they were before the illness within two years.
On the other hand, it is hardly a surprise to see that mental illness is related to happiness, as is whether people are married and whether they are religious. The relationship between marriage, religion and happiness also might lead some Christian leaders to embrace the wellbeing fad in public policy, but to do so would be mistaken.
The wellbeing agenda is a utilitarian agenda. The idea that the government exists to maximise the sum total of the happiness of its citizens is as mistaken as the idea that the government exists to maximise national income. Both ideas involve the conceit that government is able to pull levers to perfect society treating each individual, as Adam Smith put it, as a piece on a chess board as if he did not have a motion of his own.
Funnily enough, the generally left wing and often atheistic utilitarians who tend to support the wellbeing agenda are rather loathe to suggest that public policy should support marriage and religion. I also suspect that, if the Office for National Statistics finds that people’s measured happiness is increased by policies that strictly limit immigration or treat criminals inhumanely, such policies would be rejected too – rightly of course. David Cameron, not surprisingly, was rather muddled on the relationship between wellbeing, religion and public policy. However, he clearly regards religion as valuable because it makes people feel better rather than because it involves a search for truth. Answering questions as he introduced the wellbeing agenda David Cameron suggested that, if religion helps us feel better because we are more involved in our neighbourhood and more in control of our lives, then “that is good for the country and good for them in a way”.
This policy muddle on marriage, religion and potentially on issues such as immigration and crime, suggests that the wellbeing agenda does not get us very far at all if it is simply used as a very general guide. However, it remains downright dangerous if it is used as its utilitarian proponents would wish. They will ignore the inconsistencies and pursue policies that involve trying to shape society to their will under the guise of trying to maximise measured happiness.
Instead, Christians should have the self confidence to retain our beliefs and the language we use to wrap discussion of policy issues.
The Catholic Church teaches that government should try develop the conditions ensure human flourishing in both the material and spiritual sense. We should – in the style of the US constitution – have a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But this is quite different from governments designing society to maximise happiness. Furthermore, Christians are called to use their freedom in a particular way. Flourishing in the spiritual sense involves the pursuit of truth. This may at times involve standing out against the status quo, against injustice or against the dictatorship of moral relativism. Veritatis splendor notsplendor felicitates! We should do what is right and not simply what makes us happy.
In Cameron’s hands the happiness agenda seems benign. But its more serious promoters see it as part of a wider philosophical system that would replace discussion of how public policy maintained freedom and promoted human flourishing with a discussion about how governments could control our actions to maximise some aggregate measure of the county’s wellbeing. This is the road to despotism.
Indeed, our religious leaders may not realise it but the philosophical foundations of the wellbeing agenda are essentially the same as the philosophical foundations underlying the view that the government should organise and plan society to maximise national income – it is just that the variable the government would be focusing on is different! In both cases, the conceited philosophy of scientism – the belief that societies can be controlled like engineering systems to achieve this or that objective is promoted over human freedom.
Funnily enough, the second time Archbishop Nichols mentioned the wellbeing agenda he carefully noted that it did not necessarily have any public policy implications. This was an astute observation but he would also do well to note that those who promote this agenda most vociferously do not agree with him.