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A job for Jesse Norman, the new MP for Hereford

By Paul Goodman

NORMAN-JESSE So the Office of National Statistics is to measure general well-being.  Has Steve Hilton had a word with Jesse Norman, the new MP for Hereford and South Herefordshire?

I ask because he's kindly sent me a copy of his new book, "The Big Society" (Norman, that is, not Hilton), and reading the Hilton-esque news rang a bell.  Sure enough, I opened Norman's work, turned to Chapter Seven, and found that its title proclaims -

"The Danger of Happiness"

- and that part of the text declares -

"It has been a truism since the time of Aristotle that the term "happiness" can cover many things.  There is no single and stable concept in common use.  Rather, the term has been used over the years in connection with a bewildering range of different ideas including well-being, self-fulfilment, blessedness, virtue, excellence, skill, moral or physical health, the full possession of one's faculties, wealth or property, honour, virtue and cultivated tastes, to name only a few."

So is measuring happiness a waste of time and money, because it means different things to different people?

Yes, it seems, according to Norman: Conservative MP slams government policy!

But not so fast.  He isn't, really.

Norman's words, as quoted above, are both a specific response to the ideas of Richard Layard, and a general response to the assumptions that lie behind them.

Layard's ideas of how to make people happier, Norman says, are actually a means of drumming up support for higher taxes and spending, which he  - Norman - dislikes.  (That's the specific response.)

Furthermore -

"by simply substituting one set of human motivations for another, [they] leave intact the broader framework of perfect information, perfect rationality and marginal preferences that is so deeply problematic".  (That's the general response.)

In other words, Norman is arguing that Layard's picture of what human beings are - one that is also "embedded in our standard economics" - is fundamentally flawed.

So what's the right picture, then?

To answer this question, Norman says that -

"we need to pull together various ideas that at first glance may seem only distantly related to each other".

It's thus that, having already touched on Adam Smith, and David Hume's Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, Norman moves on to Plato's The Republic, Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, Locke's Second Treatise of Government, the work of American psychologist Abraham Maslow, the 1844 Manuscripts of Karl Marx, the idea of Atma-Jnana or self-realisation in Hinduism, St Paul's Epistle to the Romans and Jackie Collins's Hollywood Wives: the New Generation.*

What Norman's getting at, if I understand him rightly, is that human beings are not the "passive agents" that Layard and conventional economics would have them be - "empty dials, that only flicker into life when some temporary pleasure pulses through them" - but active people: "bundles of capabilities" -

"In this view, the human self is not static but a dynamic, active force.  It is autonomous, imaginative and creative, and its needs and interests constantly change and develop over time.  It has actual and potential capabilities that naturally seek an outlet for self-expression.  Moreover, people are social beings.  They are not merely gregarious; rather, they have an instinct to change and personalise what is around them, and to link with others.  Over time human actions create habits, and good habits become virtues; shared habits over time create practices; and practices that have developed over time become institutions."

At which point, a further question suggests itself, which, to give Norman credit, he asks himself -

"But so what?  Fine words, you might say, but this brief foray into philosophical ideas is just an academic exercise.  So maybe government hasn't got it quite right.  But these are pettifogging distinctions, which no politician could be expected to consider or even remember.  They really make no practical difference.  Policy rolls on, after all."

His answer is that treating human beings as "bundles of capabilities" can make a policy difference, which he illustrates in relation to teenage pregnancies and secondary schools.

The link to the Government's proposed measurement of general well-being is that today's Guardian report about it cited -

"...two Nobel economists, Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen, who called on world leaders to move away from a purely economic concept of gross domestic product, which measures economic production, to wellbeing and sustainability."

We've met both gentlemen recently in the new book by Norman's Parliamentary colleague (yes, they're all scribbling away, at least some of them) Nick "Enoch" Boles.  Norman cites the latter as someone who's key to challenging the view of human beings taken by conventional economics, and championing the idea of them as "bundles of capabilities".

So he is hereby volunteered to help make sure that the Government's "Happiness Index" works properly.

* OK, just checking that you're still paying attention.


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