By David Halpern
ISBN 978-0745648026, published by Polity Press, 2010 (£13.66 online)
Reviewed by Jan Steyaert
I have never had the pleasure of meeting David Halpern, but greatly enjoyed reading two of his earlier publications, a book he wrote on social capital in 2005 and a discussion paper he wrote with his colleagues on personal responsibility and changing behaviour.
At the time Halpern was working at the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit, which gave his writing that extra touch. You knew it wasn’t only influenced by research and good thinking, but that it also was influenced by and had its own influence on discussion in the inner circles of UK’s public policy. So when a review copy of Halpern’s latest book found its way into my mailbox, I could only look forward to Christmas for some quiet reading time. The snow and following immobility made sure there was plenty of that.
What we’re getting in this book is basically five large articles of about 50 pages on average, each exploring a theme that Halpern has seen dominating public policy debates without really being on the surface of these debates. While news media bring us our daily or weekly potion of 'chatter of contemporary politics', Halpern gives us a view of the undercurrents of politics, the themes that really matter but rarely surface.
The first theme Halpern explores relates to a topic popularised by Richard Layard some years ago: while in principle economic growth increases happiness, it does so only up to a certain (rather low) level. Once beyond that, more economic growth doesn’t really have much impact on happiness. Income is just one of the drivers of well-being.
Secondly, the author turns to the theme of people ‘not getting along’, discussing the increased sensitivity to crime (two-thirds of Britons think crime is rising, while statistically it fell by more than a third, p. 59) and the increased worries about immigration (again, the concerns do not relate to overall immigration levels) and terrorism.
Next, Halpern turns to the ‘politics of virtue’ and the area of norms and values, respect and regard. Taking a long-term perspective, he argues that there are few indications of a moral decline: on the contrary, we have become a good deal more polite to each other than our historical forebears (p. 104). Therefore, 'we should be wary of the doom-merchants who tell us that society is in moral free-fall' (p. 95). Having made these observations, the author argues there is indeed a tension between the real economy and the ‘economy of regard’. Building on this, the case for a complementary currency is developed.
The fourth theme covered is fairness and inclusion, or social equality. Halpern describes not only the increased inequality, but also the rise in support for meritocracy, changing attitudes on inequality and the importance of social mobility.
The final theme covered in the book deals with power and governance. This chapter covers the decline in political participation and reform of public services. I read the third part of this chapter, on the paternalistic state (pp. 221-251), with particular interest. While governments seek to allow more room for personal preferences, and citizens are less willing to accept governmental interference in their personal lifestyles (e.g. the many disparaging references to ‘the nanny state’), it becomes clear that many of the future challenges have their origin in our lifestyles.
How can we expect government to solve all these problems, while not accepting a paternalistic stance? If government can’t address our current lifestyle to curb rising levels of obesity, how can we then expect it to organise the enhanced health care services that we’ll need as a result of that obesity? How can greater leeway for personal responsibility be accommodated alongside the idea of a universal welfare state? If those who choose to spend all their savings while young become impoverished pensioners, is this acceptable as a consequence of their freedom of choice? As David Halpern puts it:
'For the most part, we are very big on personal responsibility for other people and when things are going well for ourselves. But when things go badly in our lives, regardless of the cause, we go off the idea of personal responsibility pretty fast. Unfortunately for policy-makers, we hold both these positions quite strongly and at the same time' (p224).
To find an answer to this challenge, the author introduces libertarian paternalism, defaults setting, the power of declarative norms, and the choice architecture promoted by Thaler and Sunstein. That sounds heavy, but Halpern has a way to make it read like the latest Ben Elton (well, almost).
Looking back at these five themes, two observations come to mind. One is that Halpern is clearly an optimist. In each of these undercurrents, he sees not only interesting but also encouraging developments. The ‘wealth of nations’ in the title of his book is an obvious reference to Adam Smith, but also a statement about his views on the future. His analysis is rich in ‘policy options for the future’. The second observation relates to a footnote at the end of the first chapter that still has one of my yellow post-it reminders next to it. Halpern refers to 'the findings of the last thirty years of time budget studies that have shown, across countries, that the wealthy are choosing to work more, while the ‘working class’ are choosing to work less.' (p. 54). So here I am, spending part of the Christmas break reading and reviewing this book. I’m not sure that is enough to classify me among ‘the wealthy’, but I’ve certainly enjoyed his book, and am wealthier in information and ideas.