11 June 2007

Britons - hypochondria or non-participation?

The current Economist (subscription) muses upon the British unhappiness with its current condition - which, to remind ourselves, is the envy of probably 98 percent of the world's population:

Though the British have always been hypochondriacs, earlier bouts of intense self-deprecation—after the war, when bread was rationed and the empire fell apart, or the discontented late 1970s—have coincided with real hardship. By any sane measure, the current grouching doesn't. ... But these inklings [of British good fortune] tend to be submerged in the mud of disgruntlement: the same public is convinced that, in general, the NHS is a wreck. What explains this disconnect?
The Economist attributes the grouching and disgruntlement to hypochondria, but I am not so sure. I believe that if the British had achieved exactly the same conditions - in their health service, cultural makeup, educational achievement, and the rest - with more participation in the governance that brought them about, they'd be happier. Participation in defining and creating society's goals is an end in itself. Comparing the different Swiss cantons,

Messrs Frey and Stutzer [found] that a one-point increase in this democracy index, after stripping out the effects of the other variables, increases the share of people who say they are very happy by 2.7 percentage points. What this means is that the marginal effect of direct democracy on happiness is nearly half as big as the effect of moving from the lowest monthly income band to the highest Source (subscription, possibly).

In Britain government is extremely centralised (see here and here, for instance) - at least in absolute terms - and has become more so since the early 1980s. And Britain itself has pooled sovereignty with the European Union. A memorable example occurred in 1996 when, despite its best instincts and against overwhelming economic and humanitarian logic, European Union foreign ministers, against British protests and pleas from Nelson Mandela's South Africa refused to allow free-trade negotiations between the EU and South Africa to begin, because that would have upset French farmers. Is it any wonder that Britons feel disenfranchised, and that this takes the form of unhappiness despite, what on any objective criteria, are enviable living conditions? It's not enough to give people the things you think they want. It's as important to let them make their own decisions. One way of allowing that to happen would be to formulate social goals in terms outcomes that are meaningful to real people, rather than have decisions made by remote government and big business in a mutual back-scratching exercise, as at present. (More about Professor Frey and links to his interesting work can be found here.)

1 comment:

Harald Korneliussen said...

This idea the economist has, that people ought to be happy when the rest of the world is so much worse off, is just foolish. They know perfectly well that people are unhappy when they feel that they ought to have had it better.

So, you see people who enjoy a much more luxurious lifestyle than yourself, who definitively don't deserve it (I'm thinking of various sport, pop and movie stars, which Britain has plenty of). You feel less safe than you felt twenty years ago (bother that it may be more or less true, depending). You see that social mobility is abysmal, what you can attain is mostly determined by your parents. You see the PM going off to war even though a large majority is opposed - but Britons, unlike most in those multitudes of are worse off than them in absolute numbers, know that it wasn't supposed to be that way.