A “Better Life Index” that Ignores What Makes for a Better Life

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.

Stephen M. Krason


Stephen M. Krason's "Neither Left nor Right, but Catholic" column appears monthly (sometimes bi-monthly) in Crisis Magazine. He is Professor of Political Science and Legal Studies and associate director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville. He is also co-founder and president of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists. He holds a J.D. and Ph.D. (political science) and an M.A. in theology/religious education and is admitted to a number of law bars, including the U.S. Supreme Court. He is the author, most recently, of The Transformation of the American Democratic Republic (Transaction Publishers, 2012), and editor of three volumes: Child Abuse, Family Rights, and the Child Protective System (Scarecrow Press, 2013) and The Crisis of Religious Liberty (Rowman and Littlefield, 2014); and most recently, Challenging the Secular Culture: A Call to Christians (Franciscan University Press). His latest book is Catholicism and American Political Ideologies (Hamilton Books). He is also the author of a new novel, American Cincinnatus. The views expressed here are, of course, his own.

  • BillinJax

    “Neither Left nor Right but Catholic” is a very appropriate
    position for us today as political passions here have created such a divide
    among a populous that is drenched daily by a mass media obsessed with setting
    its own “modern” standards of moral conduct and social values and willing to
    cast aside traditional western society norms in pursuit of personal liberation
    within a world community establishment designed by rich and powerful atheists
    unrestrained by Judeo-Christian sentiment.

    If we claim to be Catholic and wish to remain so it is imperative that we make all political decisions from a Catholic view which is seen though the prism of truth and justice we have graciously been given by the Spirit to the Church of Rome and the Chair of Peter. This is the Rock, the fortress, the land of the living where we must stand as the Body of Christ or we become lost souls in the wilderness of the wicked.

    • Prolifedem6M

      Just how do we do that with our current U.S. political alignments? If we vote for today’s Democrats, we’ll get sham marriage, abortion, euthanasia and doctor-assisted suicide. If we vote for the GOP we get economic disaster, as shown repeatedly by history.
      14 of the last 16 national economic breakdowns, beginning with the Great Depression, took place during GOP administrations. Moreover, except for Reagan, EVERY GOP president from Hoover to Bush II presided over at least one recession. Eisenhower had three; Nixon two. That says loud and clear that conservative economic theory as touted by the GOP is untenable in practice leading to disaster.
      Our two periods of sustained prosperity came under Kennedy/Johnson in the 60s and Clinton in the 90s. The latter actually turned a huge deficit into a huge surplus, which his successor promptly poured into the pockets of his big money supporters upon taking office.
      Democrats believe that the road to prosperity lies in investing in people. We have not had a run on banks since 1933 when FDR insured savings. The post-WWII GI
      bill educated a generation which has led to the explosion of knowledge we all benefit from today. Social Security not only keeps seniors fed and off the streets, but also boosts our economy through senior spending in local businesses. Medicare not only makes costly medical care available to seniors, but has led to great advances in medical care through investment by seniors. Other programs have had similar positive economic effects.
      So, we’re stuck between disastrous Tea Party economic theories and the Dems’ current fascination with remaking our culture. I cannot vote for “women’s reproductive health care” which so victimizes women. At the same time, I cannot vote for Tea Party candidates who will send us into another vicious recession. We need a new alternative that combines the best of both.
      By the way, we can also thank the GOP for Roe v. Wade. Five of the seven justices who voted for it were GOP appointees as were five of the five who voted to retain it in Casey v. PA.

      • DE-173

        I guess expecting some measure of economic literacy from somebody call themselves a “prolifedem” with such poorly constructed prose is a bit of a stretch.
        The idea that the economy is merely a reflection of skillful Presidential management belongs on the same shelf as the tooth fairy and the Easter bunny.
        Should we not also condemn the “GOP appointees” as “Democrat confirmees”? Does the Republican Congress that Clinton was forced to deal with after 1994 get any credit for “sustained prosperity”?
        I had many relatives who lived through the 1950’s and they thought that was e best of economic times. (Eisenhower was President).

        Your post is a mish-mash of seventh grade textbook level leftist campaign paraphernalia, masquerading as moral diffidence.
        Voting Dem is NOT the EIGHT SACRAMENT as some of my indoctrinated older relatives believed. Actually being a Democrat now is a lot like being a Mason for a Catholic.

        • ForChristAlone

          Why is it that I am immediately skeptical of anyone signing in as a Pro Life Dem?
          Betraying my age, this would be good material for the TV program of the 50’s called, “What My Line?” I can hear Dorothy Kilgallen asking: “Are you against abortion?” Answer, “Well yes,”

          Kilgallen: “Are you for massive spending by the Federal government with deficits about to bankrupt our economy?” Answer: “Yes, again.”

          Kilgallen: “Are you a Pro Life Democrat?” Eureka!

      • John200

        If you vote for the GOP in the next few elections, starting in November (it’s almost here!), you will receive the surprise of your Democrat life. Hint: It won’t be economic disaster.

        I do not need to pull your “economics” apart like a little kid with a spider.

        I’ll simply urge you to try it; you’ll like it a lot better than what you have had for the last 6 years. And you will no longer be afflicted with Democrat delusions.

  • The noble experiment of the Republic has failed. There is no middle ground left for a Catholic to stand on. I do not have your hope that the OECD and the UN are not doing this on purpose, with respect to their individual politics.

    • Watosh

      Now this is the reality, and as it is at a variance with our vision of ourselves, many choose to ignore the reality. This is something we Catholics should realize.

    • DE-173

      “There is no middle ground left for a Catholic to stand on.”
      There never was, are you not aquainted with idea that the lukewarm will be vomited?

  • Fred

    I too like the title of your “neither left, nor right, but Catholic” column Stephen because in this forum it captures simply the essence of the most important perspective. Coincidently I think it also ties in well with the other article today. They all sound nice on the surface don’t they, and then you realize the people’s spiritual development is missing. God or mammon, can’t serve both – nor faceless, heartless, administrative, metric focused, unaccountable bureaucrats.

  • Daniel P

    I would like propose that suicidal and self-destructive behavior is a very good inverse heuristic for happiness. By that measure, tribal societies fare well, and modern societies far badly.

  • DE-173

    “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.”

    I’m surprised that the author pens a column expressing indignation that a bunch of meddling, unaccountable transnational bureaucrats whose very existence is a violation of the principle of subsidiarity are wrong.

    The U.N. is the global left’s golden calf. You can’t fix something that is wrong ab ovo.

    • Fred

      Sustainable development – code word for the secular humanist that screams “I’ll decide for you what’s best”, including how many children you should have, the expiration date on your infirmities, how many cars you can own or far you can drive them (none preferably), how much electricity you’re allotted, how much land you can own, how much and what you should eat, how much carbon you can pass, and on.

  • montanajack1948

    I think the Better Life Index, like other measurements of its ilk, is more useful for starting the conversation than for ending it. “Quality of life” is a phrase with which we’re all familiar, but who knows what, if anything, it means? I’d be interested in seeing Professor Krason’s alternative to the Better Life Index; he’s not wrong about its shortcomings, but the question remains, how then to improve it?

    • Major914

      “…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…”

      Even though any applied measure such as this index will necessarily tend toward the positivistic and concretistic, yet something as simple as ‘church attendance’ would crack open the closed door to much broader horizons…

      • montanajack1948

        You’re right, and that’s certainly a start…I’m all for cracking open doors and searching broader horizons.

  • ForChristAlone

    State Central Planning is tantamount to enslavement of the human person. It’s what characterized the Soviet Union and caused its eventual demise. It’s what’s happening at a rapid pace here and will cause our eventual demise. We are low hanging fruit for the jihadists.