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We hosted a Joseph Rowntree Foundation debate here last night as part of their project on the new social evils. Perhaps surprisingly given the economic gloom the overall message of speeches from Julia Neuberger, AC Grayling and Anthony Browne was that we have nothing to fear but fear itself.

Grayling and Browne were particularly keen to argue that we have never had things so good (Anthony now works for Boris Johnson, so an echo here of the Mayor’s dismissal of Conservative talk of a ‘broken Britain’ as piffle). Julia Neuberger highlighted how fear of being accused of abuse can discourage people from showing kindness and concern to children and old people alike. She called for a renewal of trust and altruism, the opening up of institutions so the public feel confident about getting involved as volunteers or advocates and an end to a culture of blame.

Responding, Naomi Eistenstadt from the Cabinet Office made a spirited defence of the role of the central state in providing a social guarantee, a framework of values and protection for children.

As all this suggests, there was much to chew over but it still felt that we hadn’t got to the heart of the question. If things are getting better and there is no real evidence of a decline of social values, why are we so pessimistic and why do four out of five of us agree with the assertion that we are suffering from a decline in moral standards? Indeed if we think things are getting worse doesn’t that mean they are? After all, how we feel about society is surely an important measure of its health? Also, social pessimism can be a self fulfilling prophesy - if we think it’s cold and hostile out there we’ll go home and lock the door.

I have been commissioned to write an overview chapter for the final JRF report on this project. Given the slipperiness of the central concept and the quality and range of other contributors it’s a tough assignment. But after last night I think I have a clearer idea about what I am looking for. I want to try to overcome the dichotomy between how society is (getting better) and how it feels (getting worse). ‘How it feels’ is part of ‘what it is’ and how it feels feeds back into what it is. Instead of the starting point being ‘society is getting better but people don’t think it is’ – the theme for last night – it should be ‘society is generally getting better but one of the things that is not is how we feel about it’.

This opens up difficult questions about the relationship between progress and social contentment. Is it in the nature of some of the things that seem to be getting better – for example, growing affluence or tolerance - that they contribute to making (some of us) feel worse? Should we give greater weight in social policy to the subjective than the objective? Interestingly this has been the general shift in how the Government measures public service performance, moving from outcome based indicators to user satisfaction.

One interesting example of this is social mobility. Everyone says they are in favour of having more of it. This is fine when we are talking about absolute social mobility – increasing the numbers getting into the middle class, as happened in the fifties and sixties. But the only way to increase relative social mobility (or to increase absolute social mobility when the middle class has stopped expanding) is to make it easier for people to come down as well as go up. But it is far from clear that a society in which it is easier for middle class people to be downwardly socially mobile would be a more content society. Behavioural economics teaches us that the pleasure of upward social mobility (getting something we didn’t have before) is less than the pain of downward social mobility (losing something we have now). So the net social contentment impact of increasing relative social mobility (disregarding other knock-on effects) is negative. In other words the one thing all leading politicians say they want more of is something that will make us less happy as a society!

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