From Policy to the Meaning of life

After finishing a blog post on the subject of the meaning of life, I assumed that would be my last blog post. After tackling such a big question where does one go from there? It then occurred to me that the meaning of life could be considered as a starting point. Could it be used to derive a political philosophy and a set of government policies? This blog post is an attempt to explore that idea.

A Multi-stage Approach

During my time as a design engineer working on large complex systems (in my case aeroplane engines) I have been taught that it is impossible to go from customer requirements to designing individual components in one step – the system is too complex. There are thousands of components in an engine, and each component could require hundreds of requirements. A single requirements document for an aeroplane engine would be enormously complex and unmanageable. Some requirements would be missed, and it would be impossible to achieve consistent requirements across such a large number of components. That is why requirements are structured in a multi-stage hierarchy. For example, a small number of product or system level requirements are first defined. The system is then divided into several sub-systems and a set of more detailed requirements are determined which will ensure the higher-level requirements are met. The step is then repeated to generate component requirements from sub-system requirements.

Can the same principle be applied to government policy? Let us assume two things. Firstly, that the meaning of life can be summarised as ‘living contently by focusing on the people and things that are important to us’. Secondly, that all government policy should be consistent with and promote that way of living. The problem with this is the fact that it is too big a leap from the meaning of life to individual detailed policy. How does a politician decide what level to set the basic rate of income tax, or how many new starter homes should be built a year based purely on the meaning of life? In a democracy, the people obviously decide who governs, but for practical reasons people do not vote on each individual policy. We live in a representative democracy where politicians are required to make detailed policy decisions on our behalf. A multi-stage hierarchy could help bridge the gap between the meaning of life and individual policies. What would that look like?

The Status Quo

The diagram below is my suggestion. Starting from the bottom, if the meaning of life involves focusing on the things that are important to us, the next question must be to determine what is important to us. While the answer will vary for each individual, politicians must ask the question in terms of society in general. This is a question of ethics – what do we value most highly? Having established a set of important values, a political philosophy can be established. This is a framework which ensures that each policy consistently promotes the things we value most.

In the diagram below I have also used the model to illustrate the current status quo in the western world: Neoliberalism. This shows how a certain set of ethical values can link Neoliberal policies (e.g. those related to minimal taxation and deregulation) to the definition of the meaning of life that I have defined. This is also intended to show that policies are the result of the prevailing ethic of government and society in general. For someone like me who does not agree with the current status quo, this means that the problem is one of ethics – it is our values as a society that need to change. The good news is that they are changing, albeit slowly, and have been changing for several years. This is what gives me confidence that Neoliberalism will soon be replaced by a new status quo: the ethical foundations on which the current status quo rests are collapsing.

A New Status Quo

In my blog post ‘A Liberal Revolution’ I spoke about a potential new status quo. I have used the diagram below to show what that status quo might look like. The central assertion is that maximising overall wealth in society is not the best route to a happy society. Instead, the key values should be political and economic equality. The link between economic equality and happiness is well documented and so I will not go over well trodden ground in this blog post. That said it is worth recounting the psychological experiment where people are offered free money, on the condition that someone else is offered more. The logical position would be to accept the offer, but results show that the majority of people reject it. This suggests that people would rather be worse off than accept increased inequality. Some on the right will respond with the excruciating phrase ‘the politics of envy’, but it is merely the natural human desire for fairness. People generally accept that others may be wealthier, particularly if that wealth is perceived to have been earnt, but too much inequality has a corrosive and divisive effect on society. It is also a reminder that we humans are naturally social creatures who decide how well we are doing based on comparisons with others. Even if we are better off than we used to be, we may still be unhappy if those around us are doing even better.

The link between happiness and political equality is perhaps less obvious, but was captured by the Brexit referendum slogan ‘take back control’. As I said in my Brexit blog post, the tragedy is that the European Union was never in control to any significant degree. Nevertheless, the sentiment that people are not sufficiently in control of their own lives is valid and widespread. The need to take power away from a small elite and distribute more evenly among the population is also a necessary pre-requisite for economic equality. It is no coincidence that the people with the most wealth are also often the ones with the most political power. There is a limit to the extent to which the powerful will voluntarily subscribe to a more equal society, so the redistribution of political power must to some extent come first. Improving political power can be done in many ways. For example, moving power from the executive to parliament (e.g. the power to appoint members of the upper chamber). It can be moving power from state level of regional and local government. It can mean ensuring all votes are of equal value by introducing a PR voting system. The twin objectives of economic and political equality are nicely combined in the model of cooperative ownership, in contrast to the status quo of ownership by a small number of shareholders. The cooperative model could become the norm in society (for example, utilities companies could be majority owned by consumers and football clubs could be majority owned by their fans). This would be financially detrimental for the small groups of current shareholders, but the majority would benefit both from the economic advantage of dividend payments and the power of shareholder voting rights over key decisions.

Referring back to my blog post ‘Big Picture Politics’, it should be noted that this new status quo remains a form of liberalism and continues to use capitalism as its economic model. There is much that is good about liberalism as a political philosophy, and there is no sense in throwing the baby out with the bath water. Liberty will always trump equality in a liberal society, but my intention in this new form of liberalism is to bring the two together, and to correct for the relatively extreme valuation of individual freedom relative to equality that is associated with Neoliberalism.

It is my belief that a society that is politically and economically more equal would not only be happier, but also more stable and better placed to deal with challenges such as climate change and new disruptive technologies like A.I. From a geopolitical perspective, strengthening western liberalism will also help in the war of ideology that is being waged between liberalism and authoritarianism. However, the geopolitical angle is a topic for another blog post.

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