Wednesday, November 09, 2011

On measuring

Jo Swinson recently reported on a briefing by God (Gus O'Donnell, Cabinet Secretary) on measuring wellbeing. I retorted by quoting from David Boyle's book "The Tyranny of Numbers": "You can't make the pig bigger by weighing it more often". Jo pointed out that it might be useful to weigh the pig at least once. Thinking about this in the shower (measurement not Jo) I recalled the great Liberal promise that "None shall be enslaved by ... conformity". At my 50th birthday party (sadly a while ago now) at the National Liberal Club, I proclaimed that for Liberals the importance of freedom was the freedom to be different. "Look at you", I said to the company, "You're all different". "Ahem, I'm not" responded Liberal England.

My point is incommensurability, not a word you can utter in a soundbite or put in a focus but fundamental to liberalism. How can you measure one person's well-being against another's ? How can we choose between policies with different objectives and benefits ? How to decide between actions ? In 1789 Jeremy Bentham attempted it in his felicific calculus in his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. Recognising that his two great masters of mankind - pleasure and pain - do not actually explain all human behaviour, he redefines them at length until they become pseudonyms for good and evil and we are back to irreducible ethical concepts. The more complex the calculus becomes, the less convincing it is.

I fear that modern attempts to calculate well-being may deteriorate into governance by Top Trumps. It is widely accepted that natural science developed by measurement, replacing vague notions of force by measurable quantities. Social scientists from Bentham onwards have longed to emulate such precision. It cannot be done. Not for us the illusion of scientific socialism as promoted by Marx and Engels and parroted by Tony Benn and his ilk. People have motives which are not only different but incommensurable as well. The myth of the objectively correct policy shatters on this hard fact. We, humans, politicians, Liberals especially, are condemned to choose.

No comments: