Sunday, November 15, 2009

Is a 'good society' index a good idea?

Before attempting to answer this question I should recap some previous posts about the good society.
Is there such a thing as a good society? Yes. A good society is one that has institutions that are good for its members.

What are the characteristics of a good society? I suggest three characteristics:
• Its institutions enable its members to live together in peace.
• Its institutions provide its members with opportunities to flourish – to obtain the things that it is good for humans to have.
• Its institutions provide members with a degree of security against threats to individual flourishing.

Are the institutions of a good society the same as those of the “great society”? I suggest that there is a lot of overlap between the institutions of the good society and the liberal principles of the great society, or open society, as discussed by Friedrich Hayek.

Why is it wrong to coerce people for their own good? Richard Kraut raises this question in his book, “What is good and why”. My answer is that it is wrong to coerce people for their own good because this is not consistent with living in peace with them.

Should we expect the rules of the good society to be good for everyone? Richard Kraut questions societal rules such as those discouraging theft and interference with other people because they are not always good for everyone. The point I make is that the rules for the good of all – rules that nearly everyone would agree to behind a veil of ignorance about their own particular interests and vulnerabilities - are not necessarily good for everyone.

So, I think I am on the way to identifying the characteristics and institutions of a good society. Having reached this point the thought has crossed my mind that it might not be too difficult to identify indexes that others have constructed that measure the various characteristics and institutions of a good society. If I were to combine those indexes into a good society index that would make it easy to classify various societies as bad, not so bad, OK, good, better, best. (I might even be able to think of a better classification.) A composite index of this kind would make the statistical feast more easily digestible and might even grab public attention (and perhaps even make me rich and famous).

I see a couple of problems with this idea, apart from the possibility that the world might already have just about enough composite indexes measuring broadly similar things (and fame would probably not be good for me). First, as I noted in my article ‘Gross National Happiness’, recently published in Asian-Pacific Economic Literature (abstract; draft), there is the problem of finding appropriate weights for each item included in a composite index. It is not really good enough to just have a set of weights that reflect my own values. Even if I could find a Nobel prize winner, or two, prepared to endorse a particular set of weights that would not really help much because people do not get Nobel prizes because their values are universally accepted. Ideally, every user of the index would be able to use a set of weights reflecting their own values, but then we would have a multitude of indexes rather than a single index.

Other options include use of equal weights or weights that come out of regression analyses that use the sub-indexes to explain per capita GDP levels or average life satisfaction in different countries. Equal weights are intrinsically mindless and the second option would not be much better because the ‘good society’ index resulting from it would not amount to much more than an index of average of per capita GDP or average life satisfaction.

The second problem is that composite indexes tend to hide the relationships between sub-indexes. It seems to me to be more useful to make observations about such things as differences in life expectancy in countries with differing levels of economic freedom than to be able to classify particular societies as being good, bad or indifferent using a single index number.

I have decided that a good society index would not be a good idea. In later posts I will attempt to identify the suite of indicators that would be most relevant to assessing to what extent particular societies might qualify as good societies.

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