Saturday, 30 March 2013

Happiness is a warm statistic

The other day I went for a rather nice walk and saw a horse that was just posing for the camera.  The rest of this blog is about political philosophy, so if that brings you out in hives, just have a good look at the horse and then go and have a cup of tea or something.  Isn't she a handsome horsey.  I think she might like some hay or maybe a sugar cube. 

Recently a problem of political philosophical has been occupying my mind.  Since the fall of communism at the end of the eighties there has been no coherent viable alternative to capitalism.  Now I would not consider myself to be opposed to capitalism per se, but I am uncomfortable with anything being totally unchallenged.  I usually find myself defending capitalism in political discussions, for the simple reason that it is a functioning system.  Now call me crazy, but I like ideas that work in practice rather than just being an ideal that would only work in an ideal world.  As a died in the wool scientist few things rub me up the wrong way quite like ignoring evidence in order to support your own theory and there is quite a body of empirical evidence in the form of failed communist states, that communism in its early twentieth century form does not work.  It seems to me that the reasons for this are simple, it is an ideal that comes crunching up against the barriers of human nature quite quickly.  When wealth is redistributed in the name of fairness, it is always the re-distributors that come out best.
If you live in a commune, you can name, or at least recognize all of the people in that commune, and as such you will be bound personally to the consequences of your actions.  If you put in more work it will be you, your friends and family that will prosper.  If you are a sponge for the fruits of other people’s labors  you will witness first hand those other people having to work harder to carry your dead weight in the system.  When the commune is scaled up to the size of a state no such first hand experience exists.  If you take all that is on offer, then those who suffer may well be on the other side of the country, and if you work hard you or yours will not benefit.  So why bother.  The link between the consequences and actions of an individual are broken, and the less attractive aspects of human nature take hold.  To counter this, the whole system has to be managed.  But the people managing the system are neither all knowing nor free from these base urges of greed and sloth.  As such productivity declines and distribution is inefficient. 
Capitalism also suffers from a disconnect between greed and suffering, so the rich almost never rub shoulders with those who are going without.  But its strength is that personal productivity is connected to personal gain and this means that instead of being hamstrung by greed, capitalism is actually powered by it.  As such its direction of the whole system is dictated by millions of individual people who are looking for an opportunity to get ahead, and this means it needs comparatively little management.  It can even self correct. 

When I make this point I am often mistaken for a conservative or even a Conservative, but neither of these are true.  I just have an attachment to systems that work, and capitalism does.  At about this point most people say ‘what about the poor?’, ‘what about the financial crash?’.  Well markets generally pick themselves up after a while, but the interim period may be too horrific for governments to allow it to run its course and for this reason some management is usually required.  What about the poor? Capitalism never set out to help the poor, so strictly speaking the poor are not a failure of capitalism, but a failing of capitalism.  It is an ugly system that doesn't care about anyone.  It is a brutal system that runs on greed, chews up the poor, keeps the rich, rich and can has some interesting effects on those in the middle.  It is not nice.  It just happens to lack a convincing viable alternative.
But what of socialism?  Many would suggest it is socialism, not communism that offers the coherent alternative to capitalism.  Socialism is the splicing of communism and capitalism in various ratios to give it some of that hybrid vigor   On the communist end of the spectrum it will suffer from the same problems as communism and at the capitalist end it almost indistinguishable from capitalism.  In most of the space between socialism suggests that the money of capitalism should be shared around society.  But this is missing the point.  It is still expecting money to solve the problems.

America is widely regarded as the home of modern free market capitalism.  In 1776 they declared independence from Britain in a declaration that enshrined the “pursuit of happiness” as a right for its people.  This concept has since been widely accepted around the world.

If we look back to the nineteenth century when Marx set out his ideas of socialism and communism, the world was a very different place to the world we see today.  The poor of the working classes lived in conditions that would be unthinkable today and becoming unemployed could mean starvation.  The life expectancy of the poor was low.  The most obvious impediment to the happiness of the poor was their lack of monetary wealth with which they might buy food and a higher quality of shelter.

In the twentieth century the liberal democracies of North Western Europe, and some other parts of the world, largely eradicated the symptoms of nineteenth century poverty using a various mixtures of left and right wing politics.  Of course there are plenty of places around the world where the picture is not quite the same.  People are worried about their future.  But in northwest Europe starvation and tenements have gone, however poverty has stubbornly refused to die.  Its definition has changed to become less about survival and more about lacking the means to effectively participate in society.  A monetary quantity that is inherently relative to costs and wealth of the rest of society.  The symptoms of poverty have also changed.  Starvation has been replaced by obesity, along with a host of other life shortening conditions such as mental illness and addiction to all manner of substances.  One thing that all of these conditions have in common is a strong link with stress, anxiety and general unhappiness.  Where once the symptoms of poverty could be considered to impede the pursuit of happiness, it can now be considered that the symptoms are caused by a lack of happiness.

The interesting thing about these symptoms is they do not just affect the very poor, but reach all levels of society to varying degrees.  Obesity has recently been described as an epidemic.  Government response has largely been to tackle each symptom.  We are now routinely ‘educated’ about the risks of smoking, drinking, taking drugs, eating badly, and are told to take more exercise, less alcohol and no tobacco.  A war has been declared on drugs, with sellers, importers and users alike being locked up.  Food is labelled in bright colours telling us its salt content, fat content, sugar content, etc.  Tobacco products have warning labels and pictures of all manner of medical nastiness on them.  Yet no attempt has been made to improve happiness directly or explicitly.  Many attempts have been made to tackle secondary effects, such as improving facilities and prospect for the poor, but this problem reaches wider than just the poor.  Any number of governments, and their respective policies, have promised to make us all richer, and it can be argued that this is quantifiably true.  The poor no longer starve and most of us have material items that our parents aspired and saved for, but the rates of mental illness and suicide would suggest that this has not brought us happiness.  It is a widely repeated truth that money cannot buy happiness, and yet this has been the basis of most government policy.  The reason that we have all bought into this in spite of the well worn adage that money cannot buy happiness, is that it partly stands up to scrutiny.  A lack of money brings unhappiness, or at least this is generally seen to be true.  It is also true that a correlation does exist between higher income and happiness, but this is not the same as cause of happiness.
The basic stuff of happiness is quite simple.  The factors include relationships with family and / or friends, pleasurable activities, engaging with something, a sense of meaning, and a sense of accomplishment.  Working against these is stress, social disengagement and fracturing of family life.  It can be argued that capitalism allows people to buy pleasurable activities and gain a sense of achievement through their work, but this comes at the cost of stress and an increasing amount of time is required, allowing less time to enjoy the fruits of these labours.  The negative effect of capitalism on our happiness has often been noted by the increased suicide rate in times of economic downturn, especially amongst young men.
Capitalism is an effective way of managing an economy to maximise economic output, but it is largely blind to the happiness of suffering of its people.  In times where the main impediment to happiness is financial, the various forms of capitalism can offer an effective solution that can maximise benefit across a population.  However that is not an accurate depiction of the society that we live in today.  By the old standards we do not live in a society of haves and have-nots, but a society of haves and have-mores.  Monetary differences still separate the rich from the poor, but it is the comparison rather than the absolute wealth of people that causes jealously and unhappiness. 
Happiness is a notoriously difficult thing to quantify.  Pioneering efforts have been made in Bhutan to measure Gross National Happiness (GNH) as an alternative to Gross Domestic Product (GDP).  These have been criticised as being an inherently subjective measure and therefore not a reliable measure.  It may seem pessimistic, but a measure of gross national unhappiness may be easier to quantify by using data on the symptoms of unhappiness.   The most extreme and irrefutable of which would be suicide, but should also include levels of mental illness and addiction.  Measures of happiness have been proposed that take into account a number of factors such as economic, environmental, social, mental, political wellbeing.  The exact way that happiness should be measured is still an active area of research, but in many ways any measure is better than none.

 At this point one might ask why have a measure of happiness?  I have not been proposing a radically new system, just a measurement of the effects that any system is having on us.  As Prince put it “if long life is what we all live for, then long life will come to pass”.  Personally I would rather a happy life, but sentiment remains the same and the aims for which we are all striving are the most likely to come to pass.  In our current society we focus almost exclusively on monetary wealth, and this has been largely successful.  Broadly speaking we are wealthier than our parents and grandparents.  By having a measure of happiness we would gain focus and this would give perspective on the broader effects that policy has on society.  Currently we have a review of the market performances at the end of every nightly news program and every quarter the productivity of the economy is published.  Yet there is no equivalent for our happiness or mental wellbeing.  If we invested as much focus and effort in our happiness as we do to making money, then improvements are bound to occur.  As lord Kelvin put it "if you can't measure it, you can't improve it".  That's not to say it can't improve with out a measure, but how could you be sure?

In summary, since the fall of communism, capitalism has had no viable opposition.  Capitalism is an effective way to maximise economic productivity, however it can cause great stress and we have now reached appoint where the main impediment to happiness is no longer absolute poverty.  Implicit in the acceptance of our current forms of capitalism is the idea that wealth will bring happiness.  Barring recent bumps we are now richer than at any time in our history and yet happiness is still as elusive as ever.  Measuring happiness is not in itself an alternative to capitalism, but is would provide a different focus around which to make policy.
It seems perverse that governments elected to represent the people are not making attempts to routinely measure that thing which we hold most dear.  Our Happiness.  Capitalism has done us well, but will more money make us happier?  Perhaps it is time to change the focus of our government policies to take account of the effect that they have on people rather than just their wallets.

1 comment:

  1. It is all about methods: you don't define 'success' or 'failure' of a system. The fact that a system 'works' is also not a justification for its validity, relevance or desirability. There are loads of 'working' dictatorships in the world and that does not make dictatorship desirable as a system.

    Systems are also a product of their times and the result of specific environmental and social conditions that are contingent(see Marx writings on this account) and may be justified on this basis (e.g. capitalism function is to develop productivity or feudalism is about security) but not on other non-contingent perspectives such as morality. Monarchy 'worked' for centuries at the expense of personal and corporate freedoms.

    Then you should be careful about broad assessments. Communism 'failed'but was it because of inefficiencies brought about by the vague, undefinable and unprovable concept of 'human nature'? If Stalin was a communist, then his administration brought his country from an agricultural base to be the 2nd industrial power in the world in less than 50 years despite 2 world wars, one civil war and more than 50 million dead. If that is not development 'success', what is?

    Finally, every system generates its excesses and one shall not throw the baby with the bath water. The 'spongers' exist in communes and in corporations. What generates that type of behaviour is, as you rightly point out, 'anonymity' and is related to size. Big corporations host hundreds of 'spongers' who do very little and we all experience that at some point in our carreers. It is no more a trait of socialist than capitalist systems. The same goes with inefficiencies. The mainly private american health system is one of the most inefficient in the world in terms of delivering services to patients (although it may be good to shareholders) whilst the public NHS is one of the best.

    What matters I think is not the pragamtist view of a working system, as it would justify any system, but the theoretical framework you use to study, design and run one, i.e. your ideology or system of ideas. Capitalism is about maximising profit through greed. Like you, I would rather work towards maximising happiness through solidarity. That, in itself is an ideological statement that could be the basis for a new 'system' that would bear its strengths, weaknesses and excesses like any other system and that would be strongly opposed by the proponents of the dominant system with the same energy they deployed against communism.

    There is no running away from ideology I am afraid. We always need to take a leap of faith in whatever human activity we engage with. And this is good as it will drive people's behaviour and energy. That a public service like the NHS based on helping, supporting and caring delivers a top quality service to patients does not surprise me more than the fact that corporations and states driven by greed tend to promote colonialism, wars and enslavement. It is all about belief systems.