What is progress? The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has been asking this question for some time and the current crisis makes it imperative to find an answer. According to the Anglo-Saxon Enlightenment, progress means the reduction of misery and the increase of happiness. It does not mean wealth creation or innovation, which are sometimes useful instruments but never the final goal. So we should stop the worship of money and create a more humane society where the quality of human experience is the criterion. Provided we pay ourselves in line with our productivity, we can choose whatever lifestyle is best for our quality of life.
And what would that involve? The starting point is that, despite massive wealth creation, happiness has not risen since the 1950s in the US or Britain or (over a shorter period) in western Germany. No researcher questions these facts. So accelerated economic growth is not a goal for which we should make large sacrifices. In particular, we should not sacrifice the most important source of happiness, which is the quality of human relationships – at home, at work and in the community. We have sacrificed too many of these in the name of efficiency and productivity growth.
Most of all we have sacrificed our values. In the 1960s, 60 per cent of adults said they believed “most people can be trusted”. Today the figure is 30 per cent, in both Britain and the US. The fall in trustworthy behaviour is clear in the banking sector but can also be seen in family life (more break-ups), in the playground (fewer friends you can trust) and in the workplace (growing competition between colleagues).
Increasingly, we treat private interest as the only motivation on which we can rely and competition between individuals as the way to get the most out of them. This is often counterproductive and does not generally produce a happy workplace since competition for status is a zero-sum game. Instead, we need a society based on positive-sum activities. Humans are a mix of selfishness and altruism but generally feel better working to help each other rather than to do each other down.
Our society has become too individualistic, with too much rivalry and not enough common purpose. We idolise success and status and thus undermine our mutual respect. But countries vary in this regard, and the Scandinavians have managed to combine effective economies with much greater equality and mutual respect. They have the greatest levels of trust (and happiness) of any countries in the world.
To build a society based on trust we have to start in school, if not earlier. Children should learn that the noblest life is the one that produces the least misery and the most happiness in the world. This rule should apply also in business and professional life. People should do work that is useful to society and does not just make paper profits. And all professions – including journalism, advertising and business – should have a clear, professional, ethical code that its members are required to observe. It is not for nothing that doctors form the group most respected in our society – they have a code that is enforced and everyone knows it.
So we need a trend away from excessive individualism and towards greater social responsibility. Is it possible to reverse a cultural trend in this way? It has happened before, in the early 19th century. For the next 150 years there was a growth of social responsibility, followed by a decline in the next 50. So a trend can change and it is often in bad times (such as the 1930s in Scandinavia) that people decide to seek a more co-operative lifestyle.
I have written a book about how to do this and there is room here for three points only. First we should use our schools to promote a better value system – the recent Good Childhoodreport sponsored by the UK Children’s Society was full of ideas about how to do this. Second, adults should reappraise their priorities about what is important. Recent events are likely to encourage this and modern happiness research can help find answers. Third, economists should adopt a more realistic model of what makes humans happy and what makes markets function.
Three ideas taught in business schools have much to answer for. One is the theory of “efficient capital markets”, now clearly discredited. The second is “principal agent” theory, which says the agents will perform best under high-powered financial incentives to align their interests with those of the principal. This has led to excessive performance-related pay, which has often undermined the motive to work well for the sake of doing a good job and introduced unnecessary tension among colleagues. Finally, there is the macho philosophy of “continuous change”, promoted by self-interested consulting companies, which disregards the fundamental human need for stability – in the name of efficiency gains that are often not realised.
We do not want communism – as research shows, the communist countries were the least happy in the world and also inefficient. But we do need a more humane brand of capitalism, based not only on better regulation but on better values.
Values matter and they are affected by our theories. We do not need a society based on Darwinian competition between individuals. Beyond subsistence, the best experience any society can provide is the feeling that other people are on your side. That is the kind of capitalism we want.
Lord Layard is at the London School of Economics Centre for Economic Performance. He has written ‘Happiness’ (2005) and co-authored ‘A Good Childhood’ (2009)