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Making Democracy Count

Josha Box analyses how we can improve the democratic systems across the globe by trying to materially measure progress

image: PA Images

In a historic and unprecedented ruling, the Dutch court of appeal recently enforced its government to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 25% compared to 1990. The judge based its verdict on the constitutional duty of the state to care for the health of its citizens. Here in the UK, in contrast, no such legally mandated duty exists; Parliament has the right to make any law it pleases. In theory, the cabinet could decide to run the country into the ground, and little could be done about it – until, of course, the people voted them out.

To some extent this system appears to work: despite what some may claim, no government has actively undermined our country on purpose. On the other hand, there are growing concerns about the power of big business, and distrust in politicians is on the rise. A survey by PR firm Edelman from January 2017 showed the trust rating of the government had plummeted to 26% with business not far behind on just 33%. People wonder whether political parties are there for them; 60% feel their views are not represented by British politics, the same survey shows. One way to improve this situation would be for parties to fill the void left by the absence of constitutional duties and be more transparent and precise about their goals. In simple terms: exactly who should benefit from their policy and how can this be measured? Democracy only works because we, the people, hold our leaders accountable for their actions. But how exactly are we supposed to do this if we can’t even measure Britain’s progress?

Currently, the parties excel in vagueness regarding their goals. In the foreword of her 2017 manifesto, Theresa May writes that she wants to “build that stronger, fairer, more prosperous Britain”. Sounds good, but what do these words even mean? Labour’s manifesto isn’t any clearer. Corbyn, too, apparently works in construction: he wants to build a “fairer Britain where no one is held back”. Ironically, the sentence that may come closest to setting a purpose is the slogan: for the many, not the few. Again, what the word “for” means here, remains open for interpretation. It is time to make this rhetoric precise.

This is not just a semantic discussion. More clarity on this issue not only allows voters to make a better informed choice, but it also helps fight distrust. Of course none of us can imagine what the perfect society would look like, but at least we can decide how to measure our proximity to it. Moreover, current technology and data collection means it’s no longer unrealistic to ask for precise measures of progress, as the following examples certify.

Implicitly, such instruments are already in use. Journalists and politicians alike worship the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a hallowed measure of Britain’s progress. A problem with the GDP is that it simply counts production, any production: it increases in times of war, for example, when weapons manufacturing peaks (and few would argue war is desirable). Moreover, it does not count private debt, wage growth and inequality levels, to name a few. Yet, economic growth is commonly accepted as desirable, and in practice often synonymous to GDP increase. The power of the GDP lies in its clarity: whether it counts the right things or not, it counts something. A hard number is easy to use.

This myopic focus on the GDP may suggest the absence of alternatives, but that is no longer the case. The Social Progress Index, Human Development Index and Rule of Law Index are just three of the many ways in which we can now quantitatively measure different kinds of progress within a country. What all of these indices, as well as the GDP, have in common is that they measure a means to an end; a strong economy and robust legal system, for example, are instruments to improve the overall well-being of citizens, but are not substitutes for it. What if we could measure this well-being directly?

As of 2012, we can. Since then, the Sustainable Development Solutions Network of the United Nations has annually published the World Happiness Report. This is a statistical analysis of happiness data gathered in over 150 countries. Respondents are asked to think of a ladder, with the best possible life for them being a 10, and the worst possible a 0. In 2018, for example, the

list is topped by Finland with an average happiness of 7.632, whereas citizens of Burundi give their lives a meagre 2.905. The UK is 19th on the list with a happiness of 6.814, just below the United States. Moreover, the writers then use this survey, combined with quantitative data on six properties proven to impact happiness – GDP per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity and perception of corruption – to estimate for each country to what extent average happiness is attributable to each of these six properties. This, in turn, allows them to predict future happiness. An interesting conclusion: only 19% of the average happiness in the UK is due to our GDP per capita being higher than in the poorest country, while the impact of social support on our happiness is slightly greater. A disclaimer is appropriate here:

these six properties do not fully account for our happiness, as the researchers themselves emphasise. Also, the properties are influenced by one another and by happiness itself; for example, healthy people tend to be more happy, but happy people also tend to be more healthy. Nonetheless, a quantitative correlation between these factors and happiness could be a powerful tool for both policymakers and voters alike.

It is important to note that there is no scientific consensus on the right definition of happiness, and the way the UN measures it is not necessarily the best method. Moreover, some would argue that there is more to well-being than just happiness. This is a matter of political choice, but let’s suppose that Labour adopted the happiness report. Then it’s manifesto could start with: our aim is to make people as happy as possible, as measured by the UN World Happiness Report. Yet even that is not precise enough; subtle differences in defining this goal may lead to completely different policy. For example, Labour is relatively welcoming to asylum seekers (who are on average less happy, according to the same World Happiness Report), so perhaps they would rather maximise total happiness than average happiness. On the other hand, the Hostile Environment Policy initiated by May as Home Secretary shows the Tories may rather see the current British population prosper, suggesting an emphasis on average happiness instead. Furthermore, one could wonder whether British people are the only ones who count towards the (happiness) score we judge our leaders by. If that really is the case, why donate to charities in Africa? Perhaps the happiness of other people around the world should count, but to a much lesser degree because the British government doesn’t have as much influence over them. A precise measure of progress should try to encompass all of this.

At any rate, whilst economists and statisticians are geniuses for being able to compute all kinds of measures, don’t be fooled into thinking their measures must be the right one. It cannot be stressed enough that this is a matter of political choice. Which measure to use, that is the debate we should be having. In public spaces, within political parties and, ultimately, in Parliament. If there is one thing that has become clear, it is that, whatever the definition, progress and well-being can be measured. The time has come for politicians to be brave and hand over the keys to their downfall. For when the British well-being is under threat, our judges will not come to the rescue.

Josha Box is a second year PHD Mathematics international student from Amsterdam

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