Tuesday, 15 November 2011

The Happy Shopper

It seems that some people in rooms adjoining the corridors of power are arguing about the ends of social policy. Two voices can be distinguished. The loudest is arguing that the hard and unambiguous facts of economic growth are the only ones that politicians should pay attention to (although doubtless the policies will need sweetening slightly to stop the riots getting out of hand). The other voice - weaker and unsure of itself - is arguing that happiness should also be the object of good government. Economic growth is a means to an end - it says - and the end is human happiness. And in order to make its point more persuasive it insists that happiness is something that can be measured as accurately as the GDP.

Clearly some of those in the second camp have managed to win the ear of the politicians, and so in the UK a body called the National Statistician has been given the job of framing four questions which will be put to 200,000 Britons once a year to find out how satisfied they are with their lives. Christian Kroll - one of the timid young men involved in the project - insists that the "resulting figures will provide both decision-makers as well as the general public with key information about how we can tackle the most pressing social issues of our time."

The disturbing thing here is that people like Christian Kroll seem to think that this breaks new ground. It doesn't. It simply re-presents the old and dubious polarity of the individual subject with her oh-so subjective feelings and goals and ideas on the one hand, and the hard objective data of economic life on the other.

To remain within that old polarity is to miss so much that is important. Above all, you miss culture. What is in decline in Europe (and this is the real crisis) is not the index of individual happiness. It is the integrity – the vitality – of a culture that could draw people out of their monadic consumerist bubbles and put the economy in its place again. But that would not be good for business, so let’s just stick to tweaking the happiness index.

I'm off to the shops. Maybe that'll make me feel less depressed.

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