Welfare and well-being: Social value in public policy, by Bill Jordan

Policy Press, 2008, iv + 283 pp, hbk, 1 84742 081 7, £65, pbk, 1 84742 080 0, £22.50

This is a polemic, and a most effective one. The first part of its thesis (explored in part I) is that the economic model of rational individuals choosing how to satisfy their private desires now controls what we mean by ‘welfare’ and the means whereby we provide it, but that this is no way to provide for well-being. Sociological research has shown that as income rises, self-assessed well-being rises and then plateaus. Maximising economic rewards can be a stressful business, and we don’t always choose options in the marketplace which actually increase well-being – so, as Jordan suggests, ‘the paradox of the present situation, in the affluent Anglophone countries, is that the economic model is both dominant (as a basis for public policy, and within the social sciences) and fragile in the tenability of its fundamental assumptions’ (p.5).

The second element of the thesis (explored in part II) is that there is another way: a way based on ‘social value’. Our well-being in fact depends on the quality of relationships and on the culture of the collective in which we live – and this well-being is itself social: it is the well-being of populations. The problem is that the culture of our society is significantly informed by the economic model, so we become ‘cultural dopes’, unable to escape from this model.

Jordan employs the term ‘welfare’ for the individual’s utility maximisation, and thus, in terms of the economic model, ‘well-being’ is a quality of societies. The former is easier both to conceptualise and to operationalise. Contracts between individuals or between individuals and institutions have consequences which we can fairly easily analyse. A culture of well-being is rather more difficult both to measure and to foster. Thus part III of the book asks whether the economic model of welfare might generate a culture which enhances social value, thus reconciling welfare and well-being. Jordan discussions a Citizen’s Income (here called a Basic Income) and suggests that, whilst a Citizen’s Income in itself would not necessarily create a socially-understood well-being, it could complement the other complex social processes which might do so. ‘The conflicts between the priorities of maximising the basic income and sustaining the practices and cultures conducive for well-being would be the new stuff of democratic politics’ (p.243).

A Citizen’s Income is, after all, rooted in liberal individualism, so it is no surprise that in itself it cannot create social well-being. What we now need from Bill Jordan is a detailed examination of the institutional changes which might create social well-being. He is particularly interested in the ways in which we care for children and for the elderly, so a study of how a Citizen’s Income might cohere with a package of policy changes aimed at improving the social well-being of children and elderly people would be most informative. If he finds that the necessary changeswould be promoted by a Citizen’s Income then, because a Citizen’s Income is rooted in liberal individualism and would enhance individual choice, and because it is also a feasible reform (Jordan doesn’t discuss feasibility in this book), then a Citizen’s Income would fit his criteria for reform which would employ the economic model in order to enhance social value.

In the end it comes down to what we do with our lives. ‘Many people remain loyal to non-welfarist communal activities such as crafts, sports, musical styles or outdoor pursuits, but they are induced to see these as ‘lifestyle choices’ rather than essential aspects of well-being’ (p.250). Would a Citizen’s Income increase our involvement in such culture-building? We need to know.