Let’s have more focus on performance and less posturing about wellbeing

Dr Bryce Wilkinson
Insights Newsletter
30 July, 2021

We seem to be living in a time of shameless posturing about caring for ‘our’ wellbeing by the government, and too many government agencies to list.

The posturing reminds me of the saying - in the context of runs on a bank - that if a bank has to proclaim its virtue, it has already lost it. Are the declarations by political and bureaucratic institutions-- that they really care about people’s wellbeing – any more convincing?

Those who really care about the public’s wellbeing would first ascertain what is most conducive to human flourishing.

A scholarly, but very readable, book published last month by Australian economist Winton Bates usefully reviews the product of several thousands of years of inquiry into this matter.

The book comprises three parts. Part 1 is about human freedom – the freedom to act, while preserving the like freedoms of others. Part 2 explores the subtleties of human progress. Part 3 examines the sources and pre-requisites for human flourishing, including self-direction and self-development.

Bates’ main conclusion is that individual responsibility and self-direction are critical to human flourishing. The scope for self-direction depends on the scope for human freedom.

That ‘individual self-direction’ conclusion is not the ‘top down’ message emanating from those in government professing to care for our wellbeing.

One such contrary message is that forced redistribution to make more and more people dependent on state handouts and statutory privileges raises wellbeing. Yet each of those things reduces someone else’s options and creates resentment. And who flourishes when trapped on welfare?

Another contrary message is that your and my conception of our wellbeing is the problem. Left to ourselves, we will make the wrong choices. Paternalists know best, and they care. Public policy must change our behaviour.

Subsidies for electric vehicles are the latest example of this paternalistic elitism. They cost a lot and, under our Emissions Trading Scheme, make no difference to New Zealand’s net carbon emissions.

The best contribution most administrative government agencies can make to our wellbeing is to perform their assigned tasks efficiently and competently. We ask no know more from the local plumber or pizza parlour. We don’t want any of them professing to care about our overall wellbeing – for obvious reasons.

Public policy development is different. Here there needs to be a deep appreciation of the sources of human flourishing.

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