How the Coalition’s Freedom Agenda will promote happiness
Or so said Thucydides, the ancient Greek historian.
Things have changed a lot since those words were written well over two millennia ago, but they still contain a certain amount of truth. Modern psychology shows that a nation’s happiness is, in part, related to the degree of freedom its citizens are afforded. Furthermore, the Coalition’s Protection of Freedoms Bill is going to take a lot of courage when it comes to pushing it through Parliament.
Large-scale survey data show that if you look at the determinants of happiness across nations, various relationships emerge. Firstly, in poorer countries, wealth makes a huge difference. When a person cannot afford to feed, clothe or house themselves, extra money can have a dramatic impact on their wellbeing.
Unfortunately, in richer nations, rising GDP over time has made only a slight difference to our happiness. Once our key needs are met, a new iPod or flat screen TV may make us feel good for a while, but we soon adapt to the extra shiny objects and return to the way we felt before. There are, however, other factors that make a more lasting difference.
Within rich nations, a key determinant of differing levels of happiness is political freedom – at least according to a study conducted by Ruut Veenhoven, the eminent Dutch happiness researcher, who compared data across forty-four nations.
Simple inspection of data from cross-nation studies, such as the World Values Survey, shows that countries with very high levels of political freedom such as Switzerland, Denmark and Sweden top the happiness league table. These countries, for example, possess extremely open democratic institutions, high levels of freedom of speech and respect for civil liberties. However, other rich nations, where freedom is not so great, such as France, Italy or, more dramatically, Qatar (the world’s richest nation on GDP per capita according to some calculations) score noticeably lower.
It is not entirely clear why this relationship emerges; however there are several possible explanations. Maybe greater democratic rights allow citizens to get more of what they want and less of what they don’t; or maybe it is as simple as providing citizens with a sense of control over their lives. Maybe civil liberties prevent the concentration of power and its invariable abuse; or maybe they give citizens a feeling of assurance against the might of state, or its officers, who are not always benevolent in their intentions. There is a range of possibilities – and there is probably some truth in all of them.
The consequences for happiness add to the list of arguments in favour of the Freedom Bill. Promotion of happiness is not the only reason why we should be free – but it is an important one, and it is one of the reasons why I believe the Bill published today will be one of the most important acts of the Coalition.
We have already seen the reversal of some of the worst decisions of the Labour administration – such as lengthy detention without charge and over-intrusive stop-and-search powers. This Bill will roll back the powers of government by introducing safeguards against covert surveillance powers, regulating CCTV, requiring consent for fingerprinting children and limiting the DNA database. It will also herald new levels of openness and accountability within government, for example through extending the scope of Freedom of Information powers and introducing a right to data.
Some of these measures have already been and others are likely to be vigorously opposed by sections of the media; however, if the secret of happiness is freedom and the secret of freedom is courage, we will need to stand firm for what we believe in.
Jo Swinson is a Lib Dem MP for East DunbartonshireTagged in: coalition, democratic rights, freedom
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