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August 23, 2004

The Costs of Prosperity: Over the last 25 years Britain has gained in wealth, but become less rich in terms of culture - argues Lincoln Allison

Posted by Lincoln Allison

The British - and especially the middle classes - are much richer today than they were 25 years ago. But have there been costs to this greater wealth? Lincoln Allison argues that Britain has gained in wealth but become less rich in culture; it has become a less happy place.

In 1981, aged 34, I published a volume of essays called Condition of England. The main themes were the standard of living, the nature of English culture, planning and landscape, sport and places. The publishers were a small company called Junction Books. My fate was to receive lots of reviews and attention (six radio programmes in one day!), but to make no money. I was fortunate to be reviewed for the most part alongside a book by the journalist Richard West called An English Journey: both of our titles were studiously unoriginal. West's was the standard account of England in moral decline, whereas I was praised as the more original because I consistently emphasised the strengths of English society. The reason I made no money was that Junction Books proved to be far more effective in publicising books than in getting them into shops and duly went bankrupt. I would settle for the deal in retrospect.

The formative experience behind these essays was the time I had spent in California, much wealthier than England, but (it seemed to me) less happy and less rich in culture and mainly less happy because less rich in culture. My central argument was that we equated our economic failures low growth, high inflation, the wretched balance of payments, etc with total failure. In contrasting economic failure with cultural success I was not totally vague about the meaning of culture, but took my lead from Tibor Scitovsky who, in The Joyless Economy, contrasts culture with 'comfort' as components of happiness. Comfort, in this sense, is the removal of irritation; thus a state of high comfort is one in which we avoid being hungry, thirsty, excessively hot or cold, frightened, embarrassed or in pain to a greater degree than is the normal human condition. Culture is that which gives us a sense of place or meaning. Scitovsky argues that the 18th century made rich distinctions of this kind, though modern economics and administration have obliterated them. The distinction is in some respects parallel to that between 'higher' and 'lower' pleasures made by J.S.Mill. Scitovsky argues that American economy and society is much stronger at achieving comfort than culture. I argued, correspondingly, that English society was relatively good at culture.

Had I been writing at a later period I might well have put this argument in different terms. For example I might have seen it as an account of a strong 'civil society' in at least one of the senses in which that expression came to be in vogue with the collapse of communism. My account of England was of a land rich in cricket clubs, village pantomimes, rights of way and so on, of valuable cultural institutions ring-fenced against both the state and the market. I might also have talked about 'public goods', perhaps not in the technical economists sense, but in the broader sense of goods available to an indefinite number of people without charge. (I note that this sense was both debated and rejected in a recent House of Commons consideration of the future of the countryside). I meant landscape, architecture, good public television. Crudely, I was saying that England was a better place to live than California, notwithstanding that cars, petrol, hamburgers, air-conditioning etc were less affordable.

There are two different theses about economic growth lurking in my comparison. The first is sceptical: it suggests that economic growth is an uninteresting measurement, leaving out far important things than it includes and perhaps including things which are of no real value at all. Fred Hirsch in The Social Limits to Growth would join Scitovsky in this. The second is pessimistic, allowing (perhaps) that economic growth is a real increment to happiness, but that it is often cancelled out (and worse) by its side-effects. This argument is prominent, for example, in J.K.Galbraith's The Affluent Society and in E.J.Mishan's The Costs of Economic Growth.

A quarter of a century on, well into the 21st century, my argument generates an obvious contemporary question. We have now had sustained economic growth for a longer period than ever before and for longer than anyone else. What has that done to English society and what has been its effect on happiness? Both scepticism and pessimism must be considered. If the sceptical thesis is to be maintained, it must be by a strict insistence on the aggregate. It is clearly the case that economic growth has made a substantial proportion of the middle classes happier and more prosperous than ever before. Indeed, one of the least remarked aspects of 'Thatcherism' has been the re-invention of a rentier class, larger, richer and more secure than ever before. If you bought and kept the house, stayed with the spouse, did the pension plan, bought the TESSAs and the PEPs you are probably far better off than you ever imagined you could be. It is a supreme irony of life under New Labour that it is easier, in many ways, to have an 'unearned' income than one which you work for. Prosperity and it's contribution to happiness are undoubtedly real for some people; if you don't like this society, you can go and live in another one.

But the pessimistic thesis seems much more challenging. The costs of economic growth, to use Mishan's phrase, seem high. We spend more time alone as household size diminishes well below two. We spend far more time in those modern slums, the car, the bus and the train as average commuting distances push up over twenty miles. Barely a majority of children now have two parents living together; even those who do are most likely to have a working mother who is often absent and has to resort to feeding them 'fast' food. Increases in crime, drug abuse, road rage and marital breakdown seem in all Utilitarian common sense like increases in misery rather than happiness. The voluntary, amateur and 'civil' aspects of society are all in blatant statistical decline. So, even, are the commercial niceties: corner shops, milk and newspapers on the doorstep, civilised pubs and so on. In some cases the instrumental connection to 'prosperity' is so obvious as to be hardly worth mentioning. In other cases the reason for the loss seems more subtle and more spiritual.

No wonder one recent calculation of the 'real' standard of living, by the New Economics Foundation, shows that we were better off in 1976. Or that the World Happiness Survey shows us slipping into 32nd place, admittedly ahead of the USA in 46th, but well behind Bangladesh and India. (Looking at this list it seems that nations are either rich or happy, though Russia manages to be neither. Despite fascination with such lists, though, I must tediously insist that surveys of happiness reveal almost nothing and suggest a diversity of cultural meanings).

My conclusion is in the form of a hypothesis which still stands rather than a committed assertion. It is the idea that we must now accept and invert the central argument I put in Condition of England about the relationship between economic success and happiness. Official economic success is not a question of swings and roundabouts, but a sacrificing of the significant in favour of the trivial. We have our air-conditioning and DVDs; we lose our tranquillity, our countryside, our family life and our clubs.

Lincoln Allison has recently retired as Reader in Politics, University of Warwick.

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