Tuesday, 16 November 2010

A Welcome Tory Initiative

David Cameron's proposal to try to measure what the media are pleased to call our Gross National Happiness would have been received with derision by earlier generations of Conservatives, but his recognition that: "It's not just the economy, stupid." is to be welcomed.

It has long been recognised that crude GDP per capita figures are not a reliable guide to wellbeing in developing countries, and the UN has for a long time produced a Human Development Index (HDI) which, along with per capita GDP includes infant mortality rates, percentage of children in schools, adult literacy and longevity. Although developed countries are included in the index, the differentiation is not particularly meaningful.

Although no-one, as far as I know, has yet produced one, there are many ideas as to what should be included in an index of Gross National Wellbeing (GNW). Here are some:

1. per capita GDP needs to be included, but should be refined to deduct rather than add "bads" such as the use of non-renewable resources, pollution and the cost of clearing it up.

2. A measure of equality. The Gini Coefficient is an established and objective method of measuring this. As the work of Wilkinson and Pickett, among others, demonstrates, more equal societies are happier societies.

3. Medical factors such as infant mortality, longevity, the incidence of mental illness and stress.

4. Social factors such as crime rates and the proportion of people in prison, the incidence of suicide, the stability of marriages and partnerships,the extent of human rights, working hours and the number of holidays, the percentage receiving higher education, the level of unemployment and homelessness and access to cultural experiences.

There would need to be much discussion as to what should and should not be included, and the weighting given to each factor, but an internationally agreed index would be a useful tool of comparison between countries, and a useful measure of the success or otherwise of governments within countries.


  1. Good heavens, Mr W. I read the title of your blog entry and confess I began making enquiries as to whether Satan was seen skating to work this morning!

  2. So for once we are in complete agreement. Long may it last. Just goes to show we judge ideas on their merits rather than their source. Do you think Mr Cameron will want to include the Gini Coefficient in his measure of happiness?

  3. Indeed, I expect we'd find much common ground on liberty, localism and rationalism; probably much less so on matters of economics!

    I doubt Cameron would want to include the Gini Coefficient, although I think there are strong arguments for your other three propositions that I suspect he'd look favourably on. I can't help but recall Mrs Thatcher's reply to Simon Hughes - that he'd rather we were all poorer but with a smaller equality gap, than all richer with a bigger gap.

    I confess, I don't believe in striving as a society to mete out equality; but I do believe in creating a society in which any individual has sufficient support and opportunities in place to cross that gap themselves. What I do believe in is that all individuals, no matter who they are or where they are born, should be able to reach the top on merit and through hard work; but I don't believe in simply raising up beyond a necessary minimum those individuals who have no desire to apply themselves to it. I suspect that is where the dividing line comes in?

    In that sense, I think the Gini Coefficient would answer the wrong question - simply telling us WHAT the inequality was, rather than WHY - and I think it's the latter that's far more important.