Daniel Dorling, A Better Politics: How government can make us happier

Daniel Dorling, A Better Politics: How government can make us happier

download from www.dannydorling.org

This new addition to the vast Dorling corpus sets out from the suggestion that governments ‘should concern themselves with what matters most to people’ (p.10) – which means asking them; from the finding that there is a correlation between the level of government spending and the average level of individual happiness; and from the idea that governments should pursue their citizens’ happiness – which means asking them about how happy they are and about what makes them happy. Dorling groups the things that survey responses tell us make people happy under the different categories of Abraham Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of needs’ – physiological (food, water, etc.: the things that we need for survival); safety (security of body, safety of property, etc.); love or belonging (friendship and family); esteem (achievement, respect of and by others, etc.); and self-actualisation (creativity, morality, etc.): and then he organises the chapters of the book around those categories. So chapter 2 tackles ‘basic needs’, and finds that our own illness or the illness or death of someone close to us can be particularly damaging to our happiness, and that births can produce spikes in happiness: which makes it surprising that the UK’s employment patterns, housing market, and tax and benefits systems increasingly fail to provide the kind of financial security that would encourage couples to embark on bringing up a family. In purely financial terms, it would be more beneficial to encourage couples to have families than to wait until they are without families later in life and are more likely to become financial burdens on the state; and in terms of happiness accounting, increasing numbers of people without children will reduce society’s overall level of happiness; and in relation to housing, regulation of the quality of rented housing does not necessarily reduce supply.

In chapter 3, Dorling again discusses housing in relation to Maslow’s ‘safety’ category, and finds of course that fewer people are now able to buy their own homes, that increasing numbers of people are finding rents unaffordable, and that evictions are far too common; and in the same category he discusses wealth inequality, and low income families’ inability to accumulate wealth. Chapter 4, on ‘love’, explains that the making of a relationship can produce substantial happiness, and that the ending of a relationship can have a devastating effect on the level of happiness. Out of 34 countries, the UK has the fourth highest divorce rate, and Dorling suggests that among the causes are long employment hours, long commuting distances, and high rates of imprisonment – all of which government could help to tackle. In the same category, Dorling locates the increasing anxiety and the lower levels of trust that growing inequality has helped to generate. Chapter 5 rightly suggests that equal respect – particularly for women – and the quality and security of employment, are important routes to our need for ‘esteem’, and also that the ratio between the highest and the lowest salaries in a company or public service affects the levels of esteem in that company or service. Paying the Living Wage is the first obvious solution, reducing the number of hours spent at work while keeping the total wage the same is another (and is a solution that can benefit the company or service’s efficiency), and a Citizen’s Income is another: it would provide financial security, enable more people to exercise choice in the employment market, and work with rather against many of the current and future changes in the way that we live. ‘A better politics for a happier, healthier UK would see the introduction of a basic income, initially at a very low level, but universal. To make the labour market work well, people need to have real choices in that market over what work they want to do, when to work and for how long. Any small steps towards making labour an efficient market, as well as being more competitive and open, should be welcome’ (p.60).

In chapter 6, education is discussed as the main route to self-actualisation: the highest category in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Dorling has no difficulty finding inequalities all over the UK’s education system, and in what happens to young adults after leaving university. Whatever their educational achievements or non-achievements, people from wealthy families tend to earn more. To fund education at German levels is the obvious solution. Also quite properly in the chapter on self-actualisation Dorling discusses protection of the environment by consuming less, learning more, and building better relationships.

The concluding chapter returns to the message of the book: that government’s task is to concentrate on what matters to us and on what makes us happy. As the different chapters have shown, this requires a range of new policy directions: and the final chapter contains more of them: taxing property wealth; encouraging walking and cycling to work; adequate Child Benefit; and a proportional electoral system.

This book is classic Dorling, but is unlike the best-selling Injustice in an important respect. Injustice has a negative title (Injustice rather than Justice), and it goes on in that vein. Yes, it makes some positive suggestions, but they are frequently submerged in the deluge of evidence and discussion about what’s wrong with the world. The title of this new book is positive; the book asks a positive question: How can government serve our happiness and respond to what matters to us?; and each chapter contains some well worked out policy proposals – as well as some of the usual description of what’s not going right, of course.

This book will be a most valuable addition to your electronic library. And, in tune with its recommendation of a Citizen’s Income: it’s free.