By Melanie Phillips
Call me a grump, but this happiness index is just a cynical attempt to control our minds
Do we actually have a Prime Minister in No 10 — or an understudy for comedian Ken Dodd?
Consider. Britain is groaning under monumental debts. Thousands of people are losing their jobs. Criminals are being let out of prison to continue attacking and burgling people.
Immigration and the ‘human rights’ culture are out of control. Britain’s defences are now so ramshackle that it has mothballed the iconic HMS Ark Royal and is now having to share its aircraft carriers with the French.
But don’t worry, everybody — the Prime Minister has his priorities straight. For he has now told us that he’s got a policy for manufacturing happiness and helping people develop ‘the good life’.
HMS Ark Royal will be replaced, it seems, by General Wellbeing. Well, I’m sure we all feel a lot happier as a result. Ken Dodd, your tickling stick is no longer required — nor your most famous song.
Now, David Cameron clearly possesses an enviably sunny disposition based on apparently boundless optimism. Unfortunately, that makes him seem as if he doesn’t quite belong to the same planet as the rest of us.
For while people are worrying about balancing their shrinking budgets or coping with broken-down public services, Mr Cameron has airily announced that he intends to spend some £2million of taxpayers’ money on getting government statisticians to measure what makes people happy.
But it appears that he already knows the answer to this absurd question. We prize material advantage too highly, he has opined, because it has nothing to do with what makes life worthwhile.
What extraordinary insensitivity — and from a man blessed with such material advantages. Money may not buy you love, but it certainly helps ease the vicissitudes of life.
For a Prime Minister to say loftily, at a time when so many are losing their jobs or tightening their belts, that he’s going to tell them what makes them happy instead of such considerations is pretty well guaranteed to engender not a state of well-being but a red mist of fury.
Of course money can’t ensure happiness. But nor can the Government deliver that, either. For centuries, philosophers and other thinkers haven’t even been able to agree what it is.
But the Prime Minister’s intention is just the reverse: to find out what people want and then give it to them.
In the hands of government, deciding what people want can rapidly develop into deciding what they should want. And that develops into oppressive policies to change their behaviour to make sure they want the things that the Government wants them to want.
Accordingly, Whitehall boasts something called the Behavioural Insight Team, led by a ‘behavioural economist’ named David Halpern. This claims it is ‘finding intelligent ways to encourage people to make better choices for themselves’ about diet, obesity and alcohol.
If you think that’s creepy enough, just look at how on his blog Mr Halpern has described his work. He says it will build on the ‘Mindspace’ report commissioned by the previous Labour government.
This looked at ways of changing people’s behaviour by influencing not just what they consciously think but also by influencing their ‘automatic processes’ — cues from the subconscious, from the behaviour of people around them, and from emotional associations that affect their decisions.
In other words, this is brazen manipulation of the public, subjecting them by stealth to a process of infantilisation and social control.
Even worse is the fact that ministers say public well-being increases if people are given the impression that they control their lives. So, to increase well-being still further, ministers will be manipulating people’s choices — while cynically giving them the impression that they are in control of the choices they are making.
Orwellian, or what? The degree of intrusiveness, cynicism and covert control being planned here is really frightening.
Supposedly through the influence of his faddish adviser Steve Hilton, Mr Cameron has been much taken with the theory put forward by a fashionable book called Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth And Happiness.
This is written by U.S. academics Richard Thayler, a professor of ‘behavioural science’, and law professor Cass Sunstein — who is now President Obama’s ‘regulation czar’.
Their argument was that government could ‘nudge’ people into behaving differently to improve their own lot and to better society in general.
Some of their examples were innocuous, amounting merely to helping people achieve their ends more efficiently. But others were sly means of influencing the way people behaved without their realising it. And some of the authors’ assumptions about agreed routes to happiness were in fact radical ideas.
For example, they suggested that governments should no longer recognise marriage, only civil union between any couple. Or that it should become easier to donate organs by asking people whether or not they wanted to become an organ donor as a condition of renewing their driver’s licence.
But maybe people don’t want to become organ donors, because they feel queasy about the whole process. Yet for these authors, the idea that their opinions might not be the general consensus seemed not even to be a consideration.
Sunstein is in fact an ultra-Left radical with seriously troubling anti-democratic ideas. In other works, he has advocated that the government should secretly feed apparently independent commentators with information, in order to dupe the public into believing such government propaganda because it purports to be the commentator’s own opinion.
So, what on earth is David Cameron doing taking such notice of ideas from such a source? Unfortunately, it has long been clear that the Cameroons were mesmerised by Barack Obama’s stunning rise to power, just as they were mesmerised by Tony Blair.
History tells us that from the French Revolution onwards, whenever leaders set out to engineer human happiness in pursuit of the perfect society the well-nigh inevitable result has been murderous tyranny.
The 18th-century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau — the godfather of 20th-century totalitarianism — said it was necessary to ‘force people to be free’. In other words, to increase someone’s happiness you had to enslave them.