A better politics--a more enlightened economics.

Author:Dorling, Danny

American political scientist Benjamin Radcliff recently used statistics to show that: 'The differences in your feeling of well-being living in a Scandinavian country (where welfare programs are large) versus the US are going to be larger than the individual factors in your life. The political differences trump all the individual things you're supposed to do to make yourself happier--to have fulfilling personal relationships, to have a job, to have more income. The political factors swamp all those individual factors. Countries with high levels of gross domestic product consumed by government have higher levels of personal satisfaction.' Fewer economists now think that being taxed as little as possible results in people better enjoying 'life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness'.

Economist John Helliwell says: 'If people really are happier working together for a worthy purpose, this exposes a multitude of win-win solutions to material problems, thereby building community while meeting material needs'. Being materially much better off than our parents were has made most of us no happier. The new science of happiness economics does not ask people what they think makes them happy, but studies how and when happiness levels change and why. This has the potential to subtly but profoundly alter what we try to use politics to do. Political priorities should be driven by what makes society more likely to be actually rather than superficially happier. This article sets out to examine what those new priorities might look like in a number of different areas, drawing on the policies other affluent countries use to promote these outcomes.

Health and life

It seems obvious that health and long life are two fundamental foundations for happiness. But recently, life expectancy for people in the UK aged over 60 has stopped rising. This may be related to the impact of austerity in the UK: cuts to home visits to the vulnerable, reduction of pensioner income credit and struggles to survive for residential homes. Are the frailest--elderly women--'the canaries in the mine'? Currently this is speculation, but in retrospect people may say 'wasn't it obvious?' People's happiness plummets when others close to them die, even if they are old. 'Unnecessarily' early deaths cause widespread distress. The death of a parent is more harrowing when you feel you should have been able to do more to help them.

The UK is practically at the bottom of the Western European league tables for both infant and child mortality: infant death rates are highest in the poorest UK inner cities and across Northern Ireland. This is, quite simply, because the UK has the highest economic inequalities between rich and poor in Europe. These stark economic inequalities profoundly affect a child's very chances of growing up. Children born in Sweden are half as likely to die in childhood as children in the UK. There are no causes of death among children significantly more frequent in Sweden than in the UK. How society is organised affects all causes of death, from infection, to congenital malformation, to road crashes. UK children are twice as likely to be killed on roads compared to children in France, Norway or the Netherlands. None of these individual deaths are 'expected', but the number of them is very predictable year on year, as is the effect on the surviving family and friends.

Dealing with what life throws at us on an individual basis is very different from dealing with it on a collective basis. We can work together to increase our overall chances of well-being and minimise the risk of the harm that could befall any of us --we have only to look to the rest of Europe to learn. Some countries levy fines for speeding at a rate proportional to income, not fixed. In 2010 in Switzerland a wealthy motorist (and a repeat offender) was fined 180,000 [pounds sterling] for driving his Ferrari through a village at 85mph. Not only is this an effective deterrent, but it also helps raise money that would be better spent on public goods than on fast cars. Owning a fast car is permitted almost everywhere, but driving it too quickly is not tolerated in those places that better know the value of life over wealth. There are other measures that we could take: reducing speed limits, promoting public transport and making cycling and walking safer all reduce road deaths.

It is shocking when people commit suicide or die from drug misuse. And it is also possible to reduce these deaths. But recently rates of death from these causes have been rising in Britain. We dislike talking about mental illness and ignore much avoidable suffering. Of the 11 affluent countries for which comparable statistics exist, the UK is second only to the US in terms of how common mental illness is. There is nothing inevitable about these rankings. The UK also does badly when we look at drug-related deaths. Of 32 European countries, the UK has the fourth highest rate of drug-induced death amongst those aged 15-64. Between 2012 and 2014 there was a 64 per cent increase in deaths involving heroin/morphine and a 46 per cent increase for cocaine deaths. These rises coincided with the aftermath of the economic crash, growing inequality and rising austerity. The Conservative government constructs drug-related deaths as individual tragedies, implying that no collective remedy can help: '... any death related to drugs is a tragedy ... Our drugs strategy is about helping people get off drugs and stay off them for good, and we will continue to help local authorities give tailored treatment to users'. That same government indirectly drug addiction services, as well as numerous other services. Worsening times drive more people to drink and drugs. Minimising the harm that mental illness and drugs do to our society's happiness is a collective issue.

Across the UK today, small campaigning groups are working to reverse the rising trends in drug overdoses, in road deaths, in early childhood mortality, and in preventable deaths amongst the elderly. The reason they give for their work is simple: the effects on those who are left behind, on the survivors. We should learn from our mistakes and from other countries where such deaths are rarer than in the UK. Most importantly, we urgently need to know why so many more deaths occurred in England and Wales in 2015 as compared to 2014, a rise of at least 4.6 per cent, even allowing for population growth.

Housing and wealth

In 1983 your chance of owning your own home was over 70 per cent for people aged between 29 and 49. In 2012 the lucky group who had a 70 per cent or more chance of owning their homes were aged 58 to 85 (see figure 1). Home ownership and rapid house value inflation was a 'bonus' won by just one generation. And yet a secure home is one of the most important factors influencing wellbeing. We need to make it available to all.

In the distant past most people did not buy their own home. Even in 1983 a majority of those aged over 50 were renting from the local council or from the remnants of the old private rented sector. Council housing, and regulated private sector rents, had put slum landlords out of business. People saw the quality of their housing improve. Now, as a result of the 'right to buy' policy, the total social housing stock is much smaller. Quality today improves only for a minority, while many others live in increasingly overcrowded property, often poorly maintained by its private landlord.


The mortgage market grew in the 1980s, along with a new private rented market for students and young professionals. By the 1990s fewer older people rented, but younger people were increasingly unable to get mortgages and the private rented sector expanded rapidly. With the economic crash in 2008, it became even harder for first-time buyers, but surprisingly easier for buy-to-let...

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