The Wellbeing of Nations
The Wellbeing of Nations
What is national wellbeing and why measure it?
not all the calculators of the National Debt can tell me the capacity for good or evil, for love or hatred, for patriotism or discontent ... at any single moment in the soul of one of these its quiet servants.
Charles Dickens, Hard Times
This book is about social progress: its definition and its measurement. In particular, it is concerned with the overall wellbeing or quality of life of the people in a nation at a point in time, how this has changed (i.e. 'progress') and whether it is sustainable. In exploring this topic, the book seeks to address three primary questions:
What is national wellbeing?
Why should national wellbeing be measured?
How should national wellbeing be measured?
Underlying those three primary questions lie others, including:
What is individual wellbeing?
What is wrong or inadequate with existing measures of progress?
How do we measure national wellbeing, rather than just describe the state of the nation when we measure specific aspects of wellbeing?
How do the current and future states of the environment, including stocks of natural resources, fit into our understanding of wellbeing?
All of these questions are interwoven. For example, the definition of wellbeing and its method of measurement are two sides of the same coin, and the meaning of national wellbeing depends both on what is meant by individual wellbeing and on how one aggregates individual values to produce a national value, as well as whether there are aspects of national wellbeing which are distinct from individual wellbeing, which should somehow be included as part of the definition.
Formally, perhaps we should take the opening three questions in the order given above: start by defining the concept, then give the motivation for measuring it and then describe how to measure it. That, however, would make for rather dry reading. It would rely on the forbearance of the reader, who would have to plough through the definition before getting to the reason for reading the book and then to how it was to be done. Better, we think, to begin with the motivation, so that the pressing need for the ideas and tools described in the book serve to drive the reader on. Once the motivation has been established – once we can see the need for such an exercise – then we can dig down into precisely what it means and how we might go about it.
For this reason, we begin in the next section with the motivation: what is wrong with current approaches, current tools and current strategies for gauging the state of society and whether it is advancing or regressing. We then move on to discuss the nature and aspects of individual wellbeing and how to measure the wellbeing of individuals, before embedding this in the larger context of national wellbeing. The measurement of national wellbeing certainly involves aggregating the wellbeing of the individuals in the nation, but it also involves other aspects, such as higher level societal properties which are not evident at the level of individuals as well as other factors which may influence wellbeing and permit improved measures. As the UK Office for National Statistics report Measuring National Well-being: Life in the UK, 2012 put it (Self et al ., 2012, p. 3 and see Chapter 7 below): 'The well-being of the nation is influenced by a broad range of factors including economic performance, quality of life, the state of the environment, sustainability, equality as well as individual well-being.'
It may be that the individuals within a population appear to be fine, while the larger picture shows something rather different (we are reminded of the parable of the turkeys, congratulating themselves on how wonderful life