Tuesday 31 January 2012 7:15 pm

Please Dave, don’t try to make me happier

THERE is more to life than money. It is an unusually dull or materialistic child who does not eventually light upon this idea. And his money-grubbing old parents must then hear all about it. Listening to banal revelations is a price of associating with children. They can be forgiven. When you are new yourself, it is easy to think your ideas are new too. But understandable silliness from children is excruciating from grown-ups. In the summer of 2006 David Cameron, then aged 41 and a half, announced that there is more to life than money. The government should try to make us not rich but happy. A Conservative government would measure its success by general well-being (GWB) rather than gross domestic product (GDP). The embarrassment was brief. The economic woes that began in 2007 put a stop to rhetoric about the unimportance of money. GWB was not mentioned during the 2010 election campaign. It had just been a phase Dave was going through. Or so it seemed. Once elected Prime Minister, Dave commissioned the Office of National Statistics to survey the nation’s happiness. In December they published their preliminary findings and in June they will tell us exactly how happy we are. That the government should maximise not GDP but GWB is apparently not an idea Dave will simply grow out of. So he needs correction. GWB cannot measure governmental performance because it cannot be measured itself. Although an individual’s fluctuating states of happiness can be ranked, happiness is not a quantity, such as weight, with a cardinal measure that allows it to be added up. You may know that you are happier today than your were yesterday or the day before. But does today’s happiness exceed the sum of your happiness on those two earlier days? The question makes no sense. Dave cannot add up the happiness of everyone in Britain and compare the total with last year’s. More importantly, like money, happiness is not the point of all endeavour. People also value truth, glory, cars, beef, Rolex watches and an endless list of other things. Some will protest that people value these other things only as sources of happiness. If someone wants a Rolex watch that is because he thinks it will make him happy. But, depending on what you mean by “happy”, this is either a mere tautology or obviously false. If “happy” means that you have satisfied your desires, then the claim that people seek only happiness is no more than the triviality that people want what they want. On the other hand, if “happy” refers to some particular state of mind, such as the apparent contentment of the Dali Lama, then we obviously do not seek only happiness. No one believes that a Rolex watch will put him in the mental state of the Dali Lama, but many still want one. Dave may seek some special mental state for himself. That’s fine by me. Alas, he will not pay me the same courtesy. Like others in the grip of an enthusiasm, he is convinced that people who do not share his vision suffer from “false consciousness” or something else in need of correction. Dave’s adolescent moment will remain amusing so long as he doesn’t try to do something about it. Jamie Whyte is a senior fellow of the Cobden Centre.

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