Reflections on whether life is now sh1t

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

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.

Published by freethinkingeconomist

I'm former special adviser (Downing Street 2017-19, BIS from 2010-14), former FT leader writer and Lex Columnist, former financial dealer (?) at IG, student of economic history, PPE like the rest of them, etc, and formerly in my mid-40s. This blog has large gaps for obvious reasons. The name is dumb - the CentreForum think tank blog was called Freethink, I adapted that, we are stuck now.

11 thoughts on “Reflections on whether life is now sh1t

  1. Giles, since Dalrymple’s arguments seem to have been new (and somewhat incomprehensible) to you, I wonder what you make of this:

    Very similar stories now seem to show up in the British press after every New Year’s Day, and have been anecdotally confirmed to me by English friends. This is a very good illustration of Dalrymple’s arguments: The people in those pictures undoubtedly have a higher material standard of living than their parents and grandparents, and certainly in comparison with citizens of many other nations. But are their lives better, happier, or more fulfilling?

    This argument has been particularly challenging for a secular, economics-degree-holding, laissez-faire materialist such as myself (a former “liberal mugged by reality”, in the words of Irving Kristol). But the larger question is – and I didn’t see this raised explicitly in your post – whether material/economic well-being is even one of the more important factors in human happiness at all.

    Dalrymple addressed this question in typically eloquent and moving fashion here…

    Not As Black As It’s Painted (“It” being Africa)

    …and here…

    What Is Poverty?

    This last question is one I would greatly enjoy hearing you address. What is your definition of poverty, and hasn’t it been completely eradicated in England, in any but the most relative sense?

    Lastly, I cannot speak for the English right, as I am greatly confused by them (they seem statist to me, and it seems libertarian/laissez-faire/free market policies aren’t even seriously considered in your country or on the continent), but in America the supply-side argument is a pretty obvious one made by the right as a means of improving the lives of the poor (rising tide lifts all boats, etc). Is this argument not made by the right in England? In the US, we on the right are strongly opposed to (yet more) law-making and authoritarianism (though the Republicans have betrayed us in this regard). Virtually all of the non-defense-related governmental activity in America is economic (as opposed to social) regulation and authoritarianism, argued for almost exclusively by the left.

  2. Thank you for your interesting comment.

    First, no I don’t think the pictures the Mail finds of drunken women prove anything about either their happiness or the state of society as a whole. Sure, standards have changed. So too has technology, and the Press, so that we now have photographers hunting out and able to disseminate pictures like that. Try to imagine what a roving photographer might have been able to find in 1830’s London. Dickens’ novels were not imagination – in fact, they had to leave out the details for most purposes.

    As a liberal in the English sense I don’t feel it is my job or ability to argue from the outside whether people are happy or not. I may disapprove of their lifestyles, but happy? Well, 150 years ago most women had to give birth to 5-7 kids from a young age, and probably observe one or more of them die at some point. They will have had friends die in childbirth. Their parents die before they reach adulthood. No choice of career. Little choice of husband if they were ‘respectable’. No education after 18 or less. Men working 2800 hours a year, and being able to drunkenly beat their wives with impunity. Sounds lovely.

    So, no, I don’t think the sluts that the Mail pruriently hunt out prove anything – see all the previous comments about the ability of anecdotes to prove anything, the non-presence of the historical counterfactual, all that.

    Your point about relative and absolute poverty is very interesting. I don’t know – in terms of starvation, we have destroyed poverty, and to justify relative poverty you have to use terms like social exclusion. I think it is right to use relative poverty, and we are a long way from ever eradicating it in the UK. I don’t think state benefits pose the whole answer – but nor does a libertarian vision of some minimal state. In the UK, we had a rising tide in the mid 1980s – 4% growth – and it did NOT lift all boats – in fact, it accelerated the trends that so dismay people.

    Now, I’m siginning off – to watch the Wire . . . wonder what it will teach me.



  3. Oh, and sceptical doctor, I could not resist quoting what I saw in the Economist this week about Prostitution:

    “as many as one in five young women were prostitutes in 18th century london. COvent garden . . . was the centre of a vast sex trade . . . fornification in public was common and even children were routinely treated for veneread disease . . . a german visitor observed a nation that had overstepped all other in immorality”

    There is NOTHING new or unknown about TD’s sort of observations. 55 year olds since Jesus Christ have been making the same points about the people 40-50 years younger than them. Nothing at all.

  4. The fact that so many defenders of the status quo in today’s UK have to turn to the London of Dickens to find something worse isn’t an argument against Dalrymple. It’s an indication of just how right he is.

    The real measure of a society isn’t that something still worse can be found. Most societies are better off than Europe during the height of the Black Death, when roughly half Europe’s population died. But that doesn’t make them great places to live. The real measure is how much better they might be with even modest effort and common sense.

    And common sense says that someone who has to get ‘throwing-up-in-the-street’ drunk every weekend isn’t happy with their life and is likely to get even less happy as they grown older.

  5. Wonderful news. Only a ‘modest amount of effort and common sense’ could make our eminently miserable society so much better. Perhaps you could post your manifesto here? Let me guess: a few laws to enforce good behaviour in the street (if only New Labour had thought of passing law), a change of the tax code to make marriage really attractive to the ankle-knickered sluts, and bingo! we’re back in the 1950s, with 2007 prosperity thrown in.

    There are several kinds of scepticism. One is the sort that TD promotes that, without ever specifically identifying a period in the past when things were better or ideal in any way, actively argues that everything is sh1t, that all the ailments he selectively chooses from the bottom segment of society are to be extrapolated onto the whole of it, so that in the end he reaches the conclusion that we must leave the country if we are to escape poverty (though, to where, is not sure: his own choice of France he admits has a version of ‘apartheid’ in its bifurcated standards).

    Another sort of scepticism thinks that if something is obvious to the expat/saloon bar view drawling about how terrible things are, how traitorous the ruling classes, how obvious are his own solutions, then such obviousness must be misplaced. That’s mine.

    The Dickensian comparisons are not there to say that “we’ve got better since 1840: quit whinging”. They are to make the point that many of the supposed ills of society that the saloon bar complainer hates (the intrusion of fresh liberal values in other parlance) are the flip side of the coin, the other side of which shows all the leaps in material wellbeing, freedom, and humanistic values that brought with them the possibility of in incivility, chaos and a changed shape of society. It would have been lovely to have had the one rather than the other, but if you have a realistic bone in your body you accept that a degree of tradeoff had to happen. And that we got the better side of the trade off.

    Still, very encouraging to know that some modest steps can make things better. We’re all optimists here.

  6. Dear FTE,
    A visit to a place where 50% of the tourists is British will definately make you change your mind. I suggest Ibiza for starters…

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