When you put people together to discuss something as nebulous as “is life in the UK now much worse than it was or should be”, it is immediately obvious that several obstacles stand in the way of agreement. In no particular order:
The conspiracy view. Most of us can only know really well about 100 people or so. For the rest of experience, we rely on the media, government statistics, gossip and so on. All of these can produce bias and uncertainty, and in the case of the first two, massive room for the conspiracy view. This tends to be undefeatable: try arguing with a Birther or Truther.
The missing 10% It is quite possible that life is getting far better for the median person – more freedom, better technology and education – but that life in an irreducible core of the disadvantaged is unmistakably miserable. This is a view I tend to associate with the Left: the Bottom Billion (on a world scale), the people in abysmal poverty (below 40%) in the UK. Most of those capable or willing to discuss matters of government policy are unlikely to have regular contact with this group. Those who do are likely to be their persistent advocates, regardless of trends (we don’t want to see the Child Poverty Action Group turn into The Group for making Poverty a Bit Nicer.
The pessimistic right also sees this group as emblematic of the whole of society – an oddly admirable view – “if you fail these people, you fail us all”. However, for those who do well and feel proud of their achievements, this can be irritating, as the reaction to Dalrymple at the 5th October event showed.
The missing and irreconcilably different past What we remember of 20 years ago is often distorted for all sorts of reasons and difficult to use for counterfactual purposes. Are Saturday football riots worse than streetcorner hoodies? Is the threat of the Cold War and Irish terrorism worse than the Islamic variety? Is it good that grandma never moves out?
Hedonic variation GDP is notoriously bad at measuring the improvement of objects through time. Example: I’m listening to Brahms’ 2nd Piano Concerto now, which (a) I bought at a click of a mouse (b) I can now use wherever I go (c) will not be scratched at all and (d) cost about 2 hours’ minimum wage work to buy. All of these are improvements. But these improvements make no contribution to income levels . Another example: I share 1000’s of pictures with my folks of their grandchildren, for virtually no cost. 30 years ago they might have had virtually none of this, not without an enormous cost. This improvement is entirely uncaptured by standard economic measurement.
Irreducibly conflicting values. Example: more liberal divorce laws lead to more divorce. More divorce is bad – or is it? Consider the experiences of the women who fought for this. I bet this behaviour did not appear in Victorian crime statistics:
In the early Victorian era, a woman entering upon marriage had almost no rights. All her property automatically became her husband’s. Even if she had her own land, her husband received the income from it. A husband had the right to lock up his wife. If he beat her, she had no legal redress. The law mostly removed itself from marital relations.Married women were put into the same category as lunatics, idiots, outlaws and children. Even her children were not hers, according to the law. And if a woman left the home to take refuge elsewhere, as Caroline did twice, her husband could lock her out, without needing a court order.
We probably have a higher than ideal divorce rate. But zero was not ideal either. This is all about where you are on the liberal-conservative spectrum. I personally tend to side with the liberals: allowing people to make more decisions tends to increase welfare. We measure divorce: we did not measure “miserable life-ruining marriages”.
The demographic facts of life have changed beyond recognition in the last 150 years. Instead of a life of continuous childbirth and rearing, women have far more freedom to delay, choose, decide again and so on. This has had huge social effects. Some of these may be bad: birth rates falling below replacement ratio, less family stability. But they represent a movement towards more choice on the part of the individual.
Things that were bad and improve disappear: things that remain bad remain. Examples: road accident deaths in the Uk which are amazing (particularly compared to the 1920s). So it is little-discussed. Not so in Czechoslovakia. As a recent Economist article illustrates, our suicide rate is low. If it were at French levels, we would be in national agonies about it. Think of other things: acid rain, the ozone layer, the cleanliness of the Thames, the 1980s scourge Long Term Unemployment (sadly, we once thought this a problem from the supply side). But see http://privatewww.essex.ac.uk/~esmith/Research/LTU.pdf.
And what about working conditions, working hours? (this is another problem of measurement. If people get another 1000 hours of leisure a year, how do you measure it’s value?). See these figures:
In 1870 annual hours worked per person stood at 2,984. By 1913 this was down to 2,624 and the decline continued, reaching 1,489 in 1998.
Imagine those working conditions; an average of 55-60 hour weeks. No doubt this had all sorts of knock-on effects for social stability – just as would forcing everyone to be conscripted for 20 hours a week would. On that subject, no longer having conscription is a major gain since 1960 in my view. Consider the casualties in the Malayan emergency. or the dead from the Korean war – how many were conscripted?
Ends and means. I think the Left and the Right would be in broadly agreement about the problems of society at the bottom. But I have no idea what the Right’s actual prescriptions are: I like “making work pay”, but here they are as much building on Brown’s system of tax credits as doing anything new. The Left has a theory: spend more money, it will be fixed. It is not a theory that the next government will be at liberty to try out, and it has other limits. What I do know is that the Right instinct of law-making, ‘encouragement’ and authoritarianism can be nuts. See this from the Economist:
Consider Texas. The state requires only that public schools emphasise abstinence, not that they forsake all other approaches. Any district could choose to be more comprehensive. But few do. Last year the Texas Freedom Network, a religious-freedom watchdog, gathered curricular materials from the state’s public-school districts. Their findings, published earlier this year, are disturbing. Fully 94% of the districts took the abstinence-only approach. Those pamphlets and brochures that bothered to discuss contraceptives were often full of errors, or deliberately misleading. The materials also traded on shame and fear. Across the state teenagers were warned that premarital sex could lead to divorce, suicide, poverty and a disappointed God . . . This approach does not seem to be working. Texas has the third-highest rate of teenage births, after Mississippi and New Mexico . . . In a nice illustration of Texan conservatism, girls under 18 have to get parental consent for prescription contraceptives, even if they already have a child.
And I read that the teen pregnancy rate in America is at the same level as it was in the 1920’s . . .
Bottom line: I have to go, to stop my own marriage ending. Personally, I think the whole political narrative is biased in favour of seeing the world as terrible, because they’re trying to get into power to do something about it. Good thing too, I suppose. Fortunately, most of us do not receive our take on life from such miserabilism.