Monday, February 27, 2012

Do comparative statements about 'national happiness' imply views about the characteristics of a good society?

Yes! I explain why in the draft of Chapter 5 of the book I am writing. This chapter is now available on the book’s web site.

The question of whether measurement of ‘national happiness’ implies views about the good society is not just an arcane topic of academic interest. International agencies such as the UN and OECD and some governments have shown dissatisfaction with use of GDP as a well-being measure and an increasing interest in measuring national well-being more directly. Some of this interest in well-being measurement is motivated by helping individuals to make better choices, but the hope is often expressed that such measurements will assist governments to make better public policy choices and even to pursue national happiness as an over-riding policy objective.
Some researchers have suggested that that average life satisfaction is the strongest candidate as a measure of societal well-being because it is a single number that can be collected directly through surveys without ‘arbitrary weighting’.  (For example, see: Jon Hall et al, ‘Cutting through the Clutter: Searching for an Over-Arching Measure of Well-Being’, Journal of Institutional Comparisons, 8(4)2010.)

After reading the draft of Chapter 5 I hope everyone will agree with me that it is fanciful to view average life satisfaction as a measure of national happiness that does not involve arbitrary weighting. Perhaps it might be helpful if I provide a brief outline of the argument here to help readers decide whether or not to read the draft chapter.

It is possible, of course, to conduct surveys asking people in different countries how satisfied with life they are on a scale of 1 to 10 and then to average the results obtained for each country. The issue is whether it is appropriate to view such averages as measures of ‘national happiness’.

When people refer to such averages as measures of national happiness they are implying that national happiness rises to the same extent if a person’s life satisfaction rating rises from 9 to 10 as if some other person’s rating rises from 1 to 2. Individual researchers can make such claims if they wish, but they cannot claim that they are value free. I don’t think that they could even claim that such a view of ‘national happiness’ reflects values that are widely shared.

The need for value judgements is usually more transparent when composite indicators are used to make assessments of national happiness.
Whatever method is used, it seems to me that when researchers make comparative statements about levels of national happiness they are making implicit claims about the extent to which different countries have characteristics that a good society might be expected to have. So, why not consider directly what characteristics ‘good societies’ should have and make comparative assessments on that basis?

I suggest that there would be widespread support for the view that good societies are characterized by peacefulness, extensive opportunities for individual flourishing and a degree of economic security. The indicators used to measure the extent to which different countries have those characteristics show a similar ranking of countries to that provided by the OECD’s ‘Better Life’ index and the UN’s Human Development Index. The main advantage of using the ‘good society’ framework is in focusing explicitly on a consideration of the characteristics of good societies.

In my view, a focus on the characteristics of good societies is particularly appropriate from a public policy perspective because it tends to concentrate attention on matters that are within the domain of public policy. By contrast, when governments adopt ‘national happiness’ as an over-riding objective they are blurring the distinction between public and individual responsibilities.

I would be grateful for any comments on Chapter 5, or on any of the other chapters.

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