Monday, September 21, 2009

Don't restrictions on freedom affect the quality of life?

It is hard to believe that the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress would consider that freedom and personal responsibility have little relevance to the quality of life. However, I haven’t been able to find any discussion of freedom or personal responsibility in their recently published report. The Commission, whose members include Amartya Sen and Joseph Stiglitz along with a list of other prominent academics, was established by the President of France, Nicolas Sarkozy.

The Commission’s report seems to have plenty to say about the limitations of GDP, and various issues concerning measurement of quality of life and sustainability, but the closest it comes to recognition that freedom might have some relevance to the quality of life seems to be in a sentence discussing freedom to exercise political voice. While it is good for people to be permitted to complain about restrictions on their liberty, it seems to me that it would be better if they had less restrictions on liberty to complain about. The authors give the impression that they consider that only the latter two words in the call for “liberty, egality and fraternity” are relevant to the measurement of social progress.

I would have been pleasantly surprised if the Commission’s report had endorsed the theme running through this blog that human flourishing must be a self-directed activity and that liberty is necessary for self-direction. (Some posts discussing these concepts are here, here and here.)

However that would have been too much to hope for. Although the relevance of rights is widely recognized in discussions about political institutions, the importance of the right to self-direction is often overlooked when it comes to discussions of the merits and demerits of alternative policies. Rights are routinely overridden when democratically elected governments consider that more important matters are at stake such as “social justice” or even the well-being of the people whose rights they infringe.

I had hoped, nevertheless, that the report would give some recognition to research findings that people value freedom. For example, it could have mentioned John Helliwell’s finding that people tend to have higher life satisfaction in countries in which a high proportion of the population are satisfied with their freedom to choose what to do with their lives (see NBER Working Paper 14720). The Gallup World Poll shows that satisfaction with freedom in France (82%) is somewhat higher than the U.K., but lower than in the U.S. (88%), Australia (91%) and Denmark (96%).

The fact that the vast majority of people in democracies tend to be satisfied with their freedom is related to economic freedom and civil liberties (as shown here). In addition, people would not be expected to feel that their freedom is being unduly restricted unless they are not permitted to do things that they actually want to do. But their sense of personal competence and self-respect must be weakened when responsibility for important aspects of their lives – such as family health care, education and saving for retirement - are taken out of their hands by paternalistic governments.

There is some survey information available to compare the extent that people in different countries feel that they have personal responsibility for what happens in their lives. Data from the World Values Survey shows that French people tend to feel that they have less control over their lives than people in the U.K., U.S. or Australia. The French also scored lower than people in the U.K, U.S. and Australia on the Gallup World Poll question asking whether respondents were proud of something they did yesterday. The Commission seems to overlook such matters.

I am sympathetic to the Commission’s view that more research should be done to assess the links between various dimensions of the quality of life. It is disappointing, however, that the Commission does not recognize freedom as an important dimension of the quality of life.

Postscript, May 2012:
In retrospect, I should have read the report more closely. It contains at least one fairly strong statement of the value of freedom: 'what really matters are the capabilities of people, that is, the extent of their opportunity   set and of their freedom to choose among this set, the life they value'. I am particularly impressed that 'freedom to choose ... the life they value' is not qualified by weazelwords which cast doubt on the ability of people to choose lifestyles that they value.  (See para 29.)

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