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General well-being and the role of government

Politics / No Comment / November 18, 2010

Promoting ‘general well-being’ is said to be one of the government’s priorities; it has asked the ONS to devise an index to measure it. Like many people, I chortled about this at first: what business does the government have trying to promote ‘happiness’? Guido Fawkes has adapted Ronald Reagan’s ‘misery index’, basing it on purely economic and concluding that Britain’s got the blues. So, should the government be in the general well-being business?

Happiness, in the sense of elation, tends to be fleeting and comparatively rare. Love or unexpected success are natural triggers; shopping, alcohol and drugs less so. The feeling should be savoured and then allowed to slip gently away. Chasing thrills can become addictive, with all the attendant dangers of obsessive behaviour. Government certainly has no role in this sphere, except in supporting those who pick up the pieces when addiction becomes a destructive force, whether to self or others.

Striving towards a sense of well-being, or contentment as I prefer to see it, is a more legitimate aspiration. Unlike the sudden and unearned elation arising from a lottery win, say, contentment arises from satisfaction at the results of hard work, whether that is an essay finished, a garden weeded or a house built. It is also the fruit of nurturing good personal relationships, living in a secure neighbourhood and having realistic expectations of continued health and prosperity.

Government, then, does have a role in promoting general well-being in the sense of fostering the conditions in which people can look after themselves and those around them. It must uphold the rule of law as a means of resolving disputes, defend the realm and live within its means in doing so. Beyond that, wherever possible, it should take a step back.  The modern Welfare State has expanded to an extent that is now financially unsustainable, whilst the Human Rights Act has entrenched a culture in which somebody else  is always to blame for personal misfortune or negligence. This has certainly not increased the sum of human happiness. As Cristina Odone argues, David Cameron should indeed boost marriage and dismantle the culture of victimhood.

Whether general well-being can be objectively measured and usefully acted upon, however, is another matter. An index of feelings across a nation is virtually meaningless and certainly does not constitute a sound basis for policy decision-making. After all, for nearly every generation, life was always better in the ‘good old days’. What government can measure and act on is its stewardship of the public finances and the volume, quality and impact of its legislation. Sound money and laws everybody can respect are the surest way of all to promote general well-being.

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