Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Should policy promote well-being?

The ONS has released a new publication in its series on measuring national well-being.  Cue the now predictable and trite criticisms.  Waste of money.  Voters care about other things.  Cameron's vanity project.

A more interesting criticism is whether or not the state should promote policies that explicitly and deliberately try to promote well-being.  Libertarians tend to argue that it is not the role of the state to decide what makes people happy.  Yet this is a deceitful argument.  At its root, libertarianism is the belief that individual freedom - mostly from the state -  will maximise people's well-being.  If it didn't, it would be a futile ideology.

So, should well-being be an official objective of policy?  If so, this would involve a major reorientation of social policy.  Since the creation of the modern welfare state, I think there have been three objectives to policy: reducing material want, spreading greater freedom and supporting economic growth.  Even more traditionally social goals - reducing inequality for example - have often been justified by these three objectives, rather than for their impact on well-being.

Spreading greater well-being seems like an obvious goal of policy, but there are a number of problems here.  In particular, the increasing use of social science evidence to show the determinants of well-being raises some interesting debates.  For example, we know from social surveys that married people and religious people tend to be happier than those who are single and atheist.  Does this mean that government show use policy to promote marriage and religion?

My own doctoral research crosses such debates.  In short, I'm interested in whether unemployed people who are on welfare-to-work programmes have higher levels of well-being than unemployed people who aren't (the 'openly unemployed'). My preliminary findings suggest that welfare-to-work participants are happier.  But is this a strong argument that the government should put more of the unemployed on welfare-to-work schemes?  Campaign groups against welfare-to-work - such as Boycott Workfare - invoke other arguments: the denial of basic rights, the wrongful subsidy of multinationals and so on.  This shows that well-being is not the only goal of policy, and needs to balanced against other concerns.

Ultimately, emphasising that policy should promote well-being is an important and good development.  It makes us look beyond the usual indicators - GDP, inflation, household incomes - and consider how people actual feel about their lives.  Yet as we increasingly discover the determinants of well-being, we are left with awkward questions.  What if what makes us happy, many of those don't like the idea of the state promoting?

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