A happy medium

It does not hurt for politicians to try on Big Ideas

This week, the leaders of Britain’s Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government paid a visit to the land of Big Political Ideas. Prime minister David Cameron launched a consultation on how to construct an index of national happiness. Nick Clegg, his deputy, used a lecture to continue his push to redefine progressive politics.

Mr Cameron, who has wanted to gauge social progress as more than just income since he first became Conservative party leader, is stealing back his thunder from Nicolas Sarkozy. The French president last year asked a group of grandees for ways to go beyond gross domestic product to measure quality of life.

As France has more of the latter than of the former, one suspects Mr Sarkozy of ulterior motives. Mr Cameron, too, may expect to gain from an official index of national well-being: Gallup, a polling group, finds that the recession did not on average cause people to rate their lives any worse. That Britons rank their well-being at 7.03 on a scale of 10 – the highest in five years – shows that complaints about austerity are exaggerated. Doesn’t it?

Maybe not. Judging policies only by their effect on GDP is of course too narrow, but holding them accountable for happiness is less satisfying still. Raising “well-being” some number of points is not particularly meaningful. And would people’s resilience in the face of spending cuts be something to credit the government for?

Still, we should not begrudge politicians for stabs at fresh thinking. It is crucial that democracies argue as much about what to aim for as a society as about the policies to get there. So Mr Clegg’s Hugo Young lecture on progressive politics is a welcome contribution.

“New progressives”, he says, judge the state not by its size but by how it enables people to shape their own lives. Mr Clegg sees obsession with the size of the state or with narrowing the income distributions as the hallmark of old progressives, by which he means Labour – and, surely, his own party’s social democratic wing.

Mr Clegg’s argument that mobility and poverty traps matter more than “snapshots” of inequality is politically expedient. It deserves a hearing nonetheless – by his party and by the country. It is a promising attempt at defining the role of the state; one that justifies the recent scrapping of a misguided legal duty on public bodies to reduce inequalities. Even those who disagree should prefer choosing between political philosophies to voting for leaders’ personalities.

Yet neither leader’s thoughts quite amount to a philosophy for governing. They could learn from one successful mingling of politics with ideas: the US declaration of independence, which asserts not a right to be happy but a right to pursue happiness. That gets the balance just right – and supports Mr Clegg more than Mr Cameron.

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