In science or business we want some level of proof that things work. Those drugs the doctor prescribes have huge amounts of testing done to prove the effects they will have. When you go to the bank with a business case, they prefer it if you don’t just have a dream, but evidence that your plan will work.
Maybe it’s my science background, but I think we should also employ such a radical suggestion in politics. When parties advocate a policy, they should look to see if it will indeed work. Rather than the faith-based policy or theories that agree with one’s prejudices that this government (and some in the past) have gone with.
Tax cuts for the rich to stimulate a depressed economy? History suggests they’ll save (or retire debt), not spend. Trickle-down theory? The poor have not got noticeably richer in New Zealand or the US when such policies have been to the fore, even before we look back to the Victorian era. Selling state assets? Evidence suggests they’ll be bought up by overseas-based multi-nationals and local profits will leave the country, with another slice of our economic sovereignty (Bill English reckons he doesn’t need evidence to know it’s the best thing for the country). Limiting workers’ rights, leaving the market to decide? Some companies will deliver the least possible to their employees. Monopolies in private hands? They’ll be abused. The free market? Can work well if people are well-informed and make rational decisions, but can go horribly wrong if it’s based on fear, greed and limited data.
So what are some policies that will work?
Firstly, what are we aiming for as a society? I’d vote for happiness – as my Dalai Lama fridge magnet says: “The purpose of our lives is to be happy.” It’s a big goal, one that governments (other than Bhutan) have shied away from, preferring to aim for wealth. But money can’t buy you love, and as the Spirit Level shows, after a certain level of wealth it doesn’t buy you happiness either.
What does evidence suggest will bring you happiness? Equality, fairness, work-life balance (both some striving and achievement and some rest – and some measure of control over both), education, a good environment, and, perhaps most importantly, a good early childhood. Looking closer you find that you can’t gain happiness by aiming for it directly, it has to be an outcome of another endeavour. As a first suggestion for that endeavour, volunteering is so good for society and the individual that one wit has suggested it be made compulsory…
So what policies should we be pursuing to make society better?
– A strong focus on early childhood is a necessity. If you don’t get that basic grounding, it’s very hard to learn the self control and self awareness to maintain happiness. Studies like the Dunedin Longitudinal one are showing how important it is to concentrate on those early years. It’s not just ECE (although it definitely includes that), but parenting classes, health check-ups and much more – it’s critical enough that there should be a whole of government focus on policies that affect small children.
– An aim of full employment, rather than neo-liberalism’s structural unemployment, will mean the maximum number of people will feel they are usefully striving and contributing something to society. And we must balance that with appropriate labour laws to mean that that employees can demand that that work is under conditions where there is time for rest, a life outside work and not too much stress while there.
– Access to quality education that focusses on the whole individual (rather than National Standards’ focus on passing Maths & English tests, to the detriment of creativity, Science, any other subject and the love of learning itself) needs to be available for everyone from pre-schoolers to adult education. Learning is a good in itself, even before the financial benefits. When National canned Adult & Community Education, it wasn’t just the massive economy benefits that were lost, but many social ones too.
– New Zealand does well on many happiness measures because of our blessings with our natural environment. We need to protect it, not mine the most sacred parts of it. We need to make sure our rivers aren’t polluted and our water tables aren’t depleted, so that our children can enjoy NZ’s beauty. And we need to do our part to mitigate climate change; we need an ETS that doesn’t just reward polluters at taxpayers’ expense. This may bring tourism dollars, but a clean green environment is an end in itself.
– Last but not least, we need to look at a fairer income distribution. As The Spirit Level shows us, disparities in wealth destroy our happiness, health and social cohesion, leading to everything from more crime to more teenage pregnancies and greater drug use. We can -and shouldn’t be afraid to – address this with a fairer, more progressive tax system; lessening the burden on those on the bottom, and allowing those at the top to pay their share. There are other things we can work on to make our society more egalitarian too – from making co-ops easier to greater worker representation on company boards (and just greater diversity on boards).