Peter Cuthbertson: How we should conceive of general well-being
Peter Cuthbertson, now working at the IEA but writing in a personal capacity, suggests that an understanding of general wellbeing should account for both GDP and social welfare.
Gross Domestic Product is an imperfect measure, but it has none of the ideological biases of the ISEW, which gives a society a better rating the more egalitarian its wealth distribution. (Britain’s wealth distribution was most egalitarian in the happy days of 1978, when the Winter of Discontent was raging.) The ISEW also positively rates higher education spending but not higher defence expenditure. This might make sense if all the world’s military spending went towards the likes of the Wehrmacht and the Luftwaffe. But of course it was Britain’s historically low defence spending in the 1930s that almost led to the destruction of Christian civilisation. Sustainability indeed.
The sad part is the missed opportunity. The idea of understanding a society’s health in terms of general wellbeing as well as its national income is a powerful one, and correctly defined could bring the Conservative Party real political benefits. It’s just the ISEW is looking at the wrong things.
Voters can intuitively grasp a notion of general wellbeing that recognises the paradox that in the midst of a record period of economic growth, Britain is suffering a social recession. Seen alongside rates of crime, anti-social behaviour, family breakdown, abortion and teenage pregnancy, educational failure and millions of people of working age on welfare, good economic figures look less impressive.
But economic and social issues may be connected in another way. I believe declining general wellbeing is part of what motivates the renewed concern with income inequality. When even the Daily Mail – as it did this summer - joins the chorus condemning the salaries and bonuses earned in the City, it is safe to say inequality is back as an issue of concern. But could it be that people are concerned with inequality not in itself but because so many of the things that were once available to people of all incomes now come with a hefty price tag?
It is commonplace to condemn the problems listed above, but less observed how much wealth shields those who have it from so many of these trends – and not only from the effects of crime and uncontrolled immigration. In the pre-comprehensive period, good schools were within reach of almost everybody. Now, those who can afford to must buy their children a good education directly in fees or indirectly by moving into the relevant catchment area. Raising children with aspirational, middle-class values is a battle not only with adolescent peer pressure but with a benefits system that penalises work and marriage – its attractions a mystery to those who grow up wealthy but an active temptation for those who grow up in an environment where welfare dependency is normal. Once can see at a glance how well the American liberal commentator Garance Franke-Ruta’s observations apply to Britain:
<blockquote>Social solidarity and even simple familial stability have become part of the package of private privileges available to the well-to-do. Behavioral surveys consistently show that, regardless of their political leanings, the better-off and better-educated live more traditional personal lives: They are more likely to marry, far less likely to divorce, less likely to have children outside of marriage, and more likely to remarry when they do divorce than their less accomplished peers. In addition, their kids are more likely to be academically successful and go to college, repeating the cycle… in today's society, traditional values have become aspirational.</blockquote>
Britain’s broken society is denying to millions what was previously available to all.
If Conservatives can articulate a feeling of general wellbeing that captures the ambiguity of sustained economic growth alongside social recession, they will be addressing the concerns of millions whose fear for our broken society has too long been paralleled by a political elite that barely acknowledged it, or imagined any solutions.