The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) is an international organization made up mostly of industrialized countries “to promote policies that will improve the economic and social well-being of people around the world.” It emphasizes its commitment to a market economy, democratic rule, economic growth, and environmental well-being. In 2011, it launched its “Better Life Index” project that pulls together comparative data from forty different countries that purports to give a picture of what makes for a better life and how the countries studied measure up.
There are eleven “dimensions” of well-being: housing, income, jobs (employment possibilities, earnings, and job security), “community” (which seems to mean mostly the nature of the governmental social support network), education, environment (i.e., environmental quality), governance (How democratic is a country?), health, life satisfaction, safety (concerning mostly the level of crime), and “work-life balance.” The Index seems similar to the “World Happiness Report,” put out by the UN’s Sustainable Development Solutions Network. Both efforts supposedly aim at substituting a broader and more qualitative notion of countries’ well-being than the aggregation of mere economic statistics when measuring their gross domestic products. Development is supposed to be something more than economics.
That sounds good. Contrary to positivistic economics (homo economicus), man is more than an economic creature and wealth is not the sum and substance of man. The problem is that both the OECD and the UN Sustainable Development people themselves provide a truncated picture of man that is only a bit more complete than homo economicus. It is certainly true that employment (John Paul II’s encyclical Laborem Exercens [#18] called unemployment “in all cases an evil”), an adequate income, decent housing, good physical health, a safe neighborhood, knowing that one can breath clean air and drink uncontaminated water, and avoidance of overwork (it has been said that the most widespread addiction in the U.S. is to excessive work) are all vital to peace of mind. So, yes, these conditions are conducive to happiness.
Some of the criteria are problematical and vague, however. For example, what really constitutes “environmental quality”? Is it what the Western environmentalist movements have been pushing for years, which seems to be akin to a return to Rousseau’s state of nature where the only truly good environment is something untouched by man? That would be a situation in which physical nature exists for its own sake, instead of to be used—responsibly—for man. Does it require embracing environmentalist theories about climate change even when the evidence is against it? Does it include population control, pushed by some environmentalists and a bevy of UN activists? What happens when extreme environmental imperatives clash with some of the other dimensions of well-being, like employment and economic growth?
When talking about governance, the OECD stresses democratic “civic engagement.” It focuses especially on consultation in making law and public policy and on voter turnout. Is high voter turnout commendable, however, when civic ignorance and poor citizenship formation prevail, or when socio-political elites manipulate groups to receive electoral support in exchange for creating dependency on government largesse? Is more “democracy” necessarily good? After all, the great political philosophers from Plato to our Founding Fathers saw it as undesirable and even dangerous. Cicero considered it a collective tyranny. Shouldn’t a distinction between it and republican government be made, as The Federalist was at pains to do? Are just “process” and participation adequate for “democracy”? Didn’t John Paul II say that a “democracy” disconnected from truth becomes a “thinly disguised totalitarianism” where, among other things, basic rights like the right to life and religious liberty are subverted (Centesimus Annus #46-47)?
More troublesome, however, is the basic fact that the Better Life Index does not much refer to matters of the soul, which is the key element of human happiness. There is no attention to religion, good family life, or moral formation. It seems as if for the OECD such things are irrelevant to a better life—even if, in fact, human experience and social science evidence make clear that they are crucial even to the attainment of many of their stated “dimensions” of a better life such as successful employment, educational attainment, and even physical health. The main problem with the formulators of the Better Life Index is that they, like secular culture in general, get stuck at a low place in what sound philosophy calls the hierarchy of goods. Despite purporting to have a superior index to gross domestic product, they are fixated on the goods of fortune and the goods of the body. They slightly nudge up the hierarchy to social goods with their concern about civic engagement, but the goods of the soul—despite a vague, unspecific reference to “leisure as part of work-life balance” (without any sense of the connection that true leisure has to virtue)—are entirely absent. The Supreme or Final Good and only true source of happiness, God, is not even in the picture. This betrays, of course, a convoluted notion of what is true happiness.
The Better Life Index—and the same could be said about the World Happiness Report—embraces a view of human development that markedly contrasts with the Church’s because it does not much recognize the spiritual nature of man. Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Populorum Progressio (#21) spelled out a hierarchy of conditions that provided the basis for determining if true human development was occurring, if man’s dignity was being furthered. “Less human conditions” include not just “the lack of material necessities,” but also “moral deficiencies” forged by selfishness. Conditions that are “more human” are those that reflect a greater acquisition of the goods of fortune, to be sure, but also overcoming social scourges, greater knowledge, and enhanced culture. Conditions that are even more human involve “increased esteem for the dignity of others,” working mutually for the common good, and seeking peace.
Conditions that are yet more human are the acknowledging of “supreme values” coming from and ending in God (this obviously involves the Natural Law, which is the way man works toward his spiritual end). The most human condition is one where the theological virtues of faith and charity abound. If the OECD gives no stress to morality, it is likely unaware that most of its criteria, from economic well-being to civic engagement to environmental quality, is profoundly affected by it. The social encyclicals, by contrast, clearly show the connection. As noted, the OECD nowhere mentions God and religion and can hardly have a true notion of the common good since that involves morality and man’s end.
In other words, the Better Life Index (and the World Happiness Report), like the reigning perspective about man in the mainstream socio-politico-economic thinking of the Western world and international organizations generally—which comes from the materialist premises of modern philosophy—takes man only so high up Pope Paul’s hierarchy. It compromises man’s dignity because it views as irrelevant what makes him more truly human. This hardly furthers development. Benedict XVI said in the encyclical Caritas in Veritate (#11), “development … needs God: without him, development is either denied, or entrusted exclusively to man, who falls into the trap of thinking he can bring about his own salvation, and ends up promoting a dehumanized form of development.” The OECD and the UN obviously don’t desire such a consequence, but they should reflect about how their perspective—even with all their good intentions—might bring it about.