Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Government and the pursuit of happiness: is it a good thing?

Over the last week I've been to two public policy seminars at the Australian National University that nicely juxtapose the conflicting directions of East and West at the moment: on the one side the Western pursuit of subjective, largely short-term, happiness; on the other, the foreseeable end of the Western hegemony as a result of the growing economic (and thus military and moral) might of the rapidly growing nations of Asia.

Happiness vs economic might

The first seminar was on the latest social policy enthusiasm for Western developed nations, namely polices claimed to be directed at the pursuit of happiness or well-being, in this case focusing on children. 

Basically the argument is that once countries reach a certain level of prosperity, increases in GDP and other measures of material wealth are not much a guide to the well-being of citizens: beyond a certain point having more things will not make us happier.  Accordingly, other measures need to be developed and focused on as the object of policy. 

Meanwhile the second seminar was a harsh reminder that the West is in decline relatively speaking, and will, all things being equal, shortly become pretty much irrelevant on the world stage.  It was a panel discussion on the coming 'Asian Century'.

Both nicely illustrate the poverty of policy debate taking place without the benefit of the Church's teachings being adequately heard.  I will, perhaps, talk more about the challenges posed by the growth of China and Asia more generally in particular in another post, but today a look at the pursuit of happiness in the decadent West!

Measuring happiness

The question posed by the first seminar was about whether public policy should be concerned about the degree to which children are happy now, driven by a 'rights' based agenda, not just their 'well-becoming' in the future. 

The answer given, of course, was a strong yes, notwithstanding an OECD study's contrary conclusion, which instead stressed the importance of taking a life-cycle perspective.

The first half of the justification was survey data from Germany (presented by Dr Sabine Andresen) aimed at persuading us that children really can be trusted to know what is good for them (interspersed with some comments on the evils of paternalism), but perhaps missing the point that knowing and acting on it are two different things, especially in the case of children.

The second half was essentially a paean to the alleged huge success of Tony Blair's social inclusion agenda (now of course collapsing due to the conservative Government's huge budget cuts) by UK Professor Jonathon Bradshaw.

In principle a positive development?

In principle, a greater focus on happiness by the State seems to me a positive thing.

One of the classic pre-Vatican II texts on Catholic social teaching, Cahill's The Framework of the Christian State, after all, starts from the proposition that "The ultimate object of the State is to secure the temporal happiness of its members..." (Introduction, pxxi).

More, we all know that the unrelenting focus on growth in GDP just encourages the rampant consumerism, greed and extremes of inequality so prevalent in Australia today, and so regularly condemned by Catholic Social Teaching, including Pope Benedict XVI's Caritas in Veritate.

So the fact that, as Peter Shergold has recently set out, everyone's getting into the happiness game is on the face of it a positive development.  Plaudits then to the OECD for its new 'Better Life' Index; the UN Development Program's annual 'Human Development Report'; and in Australia, the ABS for its 'Measures of Australia's Progress'.

In practice though...

The problem, of course, is that such exercizes seem almost invariably to produce ideologically driven results that run counter to both common sense, the experience of history, and the broader evidence base. 

Professor Bradshaw's work, for example, found that family structure and relationships made no difference to the subjective sense of well-being of children. Yet of course we do know that these things make a real difference for their future.

Both speakers at the seminar argued for a big focus on schools as a way of improving children's sense of well-being - but the OECD's results show that virtually all children dislike school.  And while I'm all in favour of happy children, what is more important: short-term happiness or longer term preparedness for the future?  Personally, I'm more with the author of a piece in The Punch, advocating that Australian schools look a little more to East Asian education systems, rather than European, in terms of an improved focus on discipline, basic skills and the promotion of excellence.

Similarly, the recent World Happiness Report, launched at a UN Conference on the subject, found that having children doesn't seem to increase the happiness of families (something that seems awfully at odds with the desperation to have children reflected in the investment in immoral means of obtaining in most Western societies, such as IVF!).

Wiping out God and the natural law

In general, what all of these studies seem to have in common is a claim to produce 'evidence' that the natural law and religion are irrelevant to policy.

Indeed, the recent World Happiness Report even points to some research that found that being religious only makes a nation happier if it is a poor(er) country/area: adjust for material wealth and there is allegedly no difference in the levels of happiness. 

But should that really come as a surprise?   First, religion is important in helping us make sense of suffering, so no surprise that at both an individual and collective level, it is more important in terms of our sense of well-being for those going through bad times than good.  More importantly, Scripture tells that claiming to be religious is not what makes one happy (or efficacious in terms of salvation), but what is actually required is to be actually doing God's will, which is an entirely different thing!

More importantly, the focus on the here and now implicitly pushes out notions such as sacrifice for others and/or the future, asceticism in the cause of personal development, and service for a higher cause.

Reducing child poverty

I have to admit though, that one of the most intriguing charts presented, to me at least, was a chart purporting to show the effectiveness of Government in addressing child poverty.

Basically, the chart, put together by UNICEF (Chart 9 in Report Card 10) shows that some countries are extremely effective at redistributing wealth in order to address child poverty. 

Australia is one of them: child poverty rates are reduced by about two thirds through our tax-transfer system.

By contrast, some Government's taxation systems actually work to increase child poverty rates: Greece being a prime example. 

The results for US and Canada are particularly interesting though, because although their pre-tax system child poverty rates are pretty much identical (at 25.1% of children), the after tax-transfer results are very different.  In the US child poverty  rates are barely affected by the tax-transfer system, reduced to only 23.1%.  By contrast, Canada manages to roughly halve the rate, to 13.3%.  Even more curiously, the child poverty rate in the US is actually higher than for the general population, whereas most countries make a deliberate policy of prioritising reducing poverty in families with children over the general population.

Efficiency and effectiveness of Government

The moral drawn from the chart was that some countries just haven't made child poverty their priority, the US being the classic example; and that some Governments are much more efficient and effective than others. 

There is a certain amount of evidence for both propositions.  The US outcomes, for example, almost certainly reflect the largely ideologically driven notion that a social safety net encourages people to become bludgers: that might be a popular notion politically (here as much as there!), and is certainly true at the margins, but not for the great majority of cases. 
By contrast, Australian public policy has generally been much more consonant with Catholic Social Teaching: the Harvester Judgement establishing the principle of the basic wage, and which drew heavily on Rerum Novarum, being the classic starting point.

Partly as a result of this perhaps (and yes, our material well-being is pretty high too, but remember the original starting point that increases in material wealth don't tend to increase happiness after a certain point), all of the flood of new measures coming out consistently put Australians near the top rank in terms of happiness/well-being measures.

Time to rediscover our roots?

There is, however, no room for complacency.

One of the (many) failures of the Gillard Government has been the lack of any serious social policy agenda, instead settling for the importation of Blair's (in my view failed) notions of 'social inclusion', and effectively continuing the Coalition's agendas in areas such as refugees and Indigenous policy.  Certain prominent Catholics, have, unfortunately aided and abetted this sad state of affairs.

Our religious orders seem to have become preoccupied with the very marginal indeed, instead of mainstream social policy issues that really make a difference, such as supporting and promoting the integrity of the family.

And our bishops haven't much helped, offering mainly platitudes on subjects such as refugees and the NT Stronger Futures initiative.

Accordingly, we need more Catholic engagement on the social policy research agenda in this countryto make sure that research methodologies are not skewed to give the answers secularists want to hear. Engagement to make sure that the right questions get asked. And to ensure that the current fad for subjective studies of well-being are set in the broader context of the future of society as a whole.

Unfortunately, most of the professional Catholic public policy commentariat in this country seem to have been captured by the rights agenda, making them virtually indistinguishable from the secularists.  We need perhaps to rediscover the richness and truth of that key sentence in the first of the Social Encyclicals, Rerum Novarum:

"Now a State chiefly prospers and thrives through moral rule, well-regulated family life, respect for religion and justice, the moderation and fair imposing of public taxes, the progress of the arts and of trade, the abundant yield of the land-through everything, in fact, which makes the citizens better and happier."

1 comment:

Louise said...

This was a very interesting post, Kate. Nice to see the mention of Cahill's book, which I just happen to have sitting beside me!