By David T Breaker
Happiness, happiness, the greatest gift that I possess – goes the song. The word "happiness" lends itself rather better to the public imagination and lyricists than "general wellbeing", which is no wonder why the news that the government is to measure "general wellbeing" has been headlined as measuring "happiness" – and why I can't find a single song with "general wellbeing" in the lyrics. But whether one calls it "happiness" or "general wellbeing", and whether economics is always prioritised – as the Prime Minister rightly insists – the danger that they have released a toxic genie bent on expanding the state remains, because by measuring GWB they have.
Conservatives should, by default, be sceptical of statistics. Remember "lies, damned lies, and statistics"? It's little wonder that the recent "evidence based" Skeptics phenomena has been largely Leftist. I'm a solid believer in evidence based thinking, but the problem is locating the evidence. It’s not that evidence supports state intervention, it’s that it’s possible to generate statistics favouring desired policy outcomes.
Statistics in government are too often flawed in this manner, from how poverty is apparently relative – meaning technically a society where all are homeless has less poverty than one of unequal plenty – to how (before Gove-ism) schools were graded by Ofsted on all sorts of bizarre criteria unrelated to educational achievement. So when David Willetts states that the ONS is "going to develop some measures of subjective wellbeing" a sense of foreboding comes over me. The madness of GWB is all in that one word – subjective. Subjective data is no reasonable measure of anything. One man's happiness can be another's misery, and may be disastrous if – as suggested – this data can influence policy, and will lead inevitably towards an expanding state.
Take for example David Willetts' suggestions. "What if the work confirms that…[happiness depends upon]…where in the country you live? What if we find that the amount of time you can spend relating to others and volunteering depends on how much of your time goes on commuting to work, which in turn depends on the quality of transport links?" Fine, you might think, all possibly true. But if this were to influence public policy what would be done? People should be assisted in moving, they will say, and working hours or commuting times should be regulated – read the arguments for the Working Time Directive – to make people work less and thus be "happier".
Not a step away from Big Government in my books, and those are just the examples of a Conservative trying to convince a sceptical Right. Wait until the inputs of GWB data are infused with pro-state criteria just as the data on poverty, schools (pre-Gove) and healthcare have. When the data says that people are happier with less money if "the rich" have less – which it will, because data already shows this – and that they don't like choice – which they don't in many cases – then what? Books such as “Affluenza” and “The Spirit Level” show what you can advocate with warped statistics. By measuring GWB we will have created a socialist stick to beat conservatives with, just as GDP is a conservative stick to beat socialists with. It is a recipe for disaster, a road map to bread and circuses.
By quoting Robert Kennedy, the Prime Minister has alarmed me further, not just because Robert Kennedy was in a position to dismiss the importance of money being the son of a controversial (to say the least) millionaire but because that former Senator’s objection to GNP – that “It does not include the beauty of our poetry…It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning…it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile” – emphasises my point. If we allow poetry, wit, wisdom and who knows what else to be measured by government, and the success of these things to influence policy, the only beneficiary will be those advocating state expansion.
As Conservatives we should acknowledge that money doesn’t buy happiness, but that it is a personal issue and that the State’s job is to defend their inalienable right to the pursuit of Happiness – not to seek to provide it.