On happiness and democracy

By Sreejith Sugunan

30 April 2018

Is India both the most democratic and among the unhappiest countries in Southasia?
Photo credit: Ishan Khosla / Flickr

Photo credit: Ishan Khosla / Flickr

When the United Nations released its annual World Happiness Report (WHR) in March this year, India’s rank towards the bottom of the list received considerable coverage in the press. The country’s slide down from 122nd the previous year to 133rd, out of 156 countries, seemed to particularly irk the Indian media, which also glumly reported Pakistan’s 75th position on the list. In the Southaisan region, only Afghanistan, it seemed, was less happy than India. This was in contrast to another report that was significantly more favourable to India. The Democracy Index 2017, published by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), placed India 42nd among 167 countries, declaring it the most democratic country in Southasia. (Maldives is not included in either of the studies.)

There are few reasons for Southasians to cheer. The region continues to be ranked significantly lower in comparison to other regions in both of these reports. However, what is one to make of the apparent contradiction between the two reports when it comes to India’s ranking? Both studies purport to map the quality of citizenship around the world. Is India then simultaneously the most democratic and among the least happy countries in Southasia? Should we expect the results of these two reports to overlap? And what exactly is being measured in these assessments of national happiness and democracy?

Measuring national well-being

The EIU’s Democracy Index is structured to capture “the features that determine how substantive [a] democracy is.” Produced by the group that publishes the British periodical the Economist, known for advocating free markets and political liberalism since 1843, the report’s key variables include electoral process and pluralism, civil liberties, the functioning of government, political participation and political culture. The EIU then scores these variables for each country, relying on its experts as well as public-opinion surveys, to arrive at an aggregate index. Based on the performance in these indices, the countries are ranked and categorised as full democracies, flawed democracies, hybrid regimes and authoritarian regimes. Significantly, however, the report admits their ranking has nothing to do with “other aspects—which some authors argue are also crucial components of democracy—such as levels of economic and social well-being.” It continues: “our Index respects the dominant tradition that holds that a variety of social and economic outcomes can be consistent with political democracy, which is a separate concept [emphasis author’s].”

The UN’s happiness measures are spread across a range of explicitly economic and social variables, or what it calls “life evaluations”: GDP per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity and absence of corruption. The UN, too, relies on opinion polls to score these variables for all the countries and determine the final ranking. Interestingly, where the EIU excludes any considerations of economics and inequality in its indexing, the UN argues the opposite. In fact, its measure of quality of life goes beyond economic inequality. “Just as income is too limited an indicator for the overall quality of life,” it argues, “income inequality is too limited a measure of overall inequality. For example, inequalities in the distribution of health care and education have effects on life satisfaction above and beyond those flowing through their effects on income.”

These are two different approaches to measuring the quality of life with one being conceived in the language of rights and the other formulated in a grammar of benefits. This is also evident in the themes chosen by the latest editions of these reports. While the Economist Group’s report was subtitled “Free speech under attack”, and bemoaned the rise of global “populist insurgency”, the UN decided to focus on migration, arguing that the levels of happiness of domestic and international migrants is a good indicator of the well-being of a society. The differences go some way to explaining why India occupies such diverging ranks in the two indexes.

India leads Southasia in the Democracy Index ranking largely due to what the EIU perceives to be its robust electoral process and pluralism. Given the frequent breakdowns of governments and constitutional frameworks in most Southasian countries, the Economist Group finds electoral continuity in India to be a strong marker of democracy. In fact, it lists India as a ‘flawed democracy,’ with Sri Lanka being the other Southasian country that is described as such. All other countries in the region are either ‘hybrid democracies’ or ‘authoritarian’ regimes. However, the EIU employs a 0-10 scale to score ambiguous categories like pluralism and political culture, and doesn’t account for concrete metrics relating to economic outcomes and access to public goods, leaving space for highly subjective assessments.

In the 2018 World Happiness Report, however, Pakistan leads the regional ranking, occupying the 75th position, followed by Nepal (101), Bangladesh (115), Sri Lanka (116), Myanmar (130), India (133), and Afghanistan (145). India’s low ranking in this report is partly explained by what WHR assesses to be the limited social support available to its residents. Also, India’s score for the ‘freedom to make choices’ metric is quite low in this report, even as the EIU’s score for civil liberties in the region is highest for India. For the UN, this factor is not reflective merely of the civil liberties as enshrined in the law, but also relates to economic and social resources that facilitate a wide range of life choices. As the report also looks at the happiness levels of migrants, it notes the concrete motives that drive them – “economic gain, career or study opportunities, living closer to family, or a more livable or suitable environment (e.g., more religious or political freedom)” – and what they think will make them or their families happiest. Unlike the Democracy Index, WHR takes into account not just the averages of the polling responses, but also the disparity in the responses, incorporating the inequality in the distribution of these social and economic variables.

 Political philosophy to public policy

The relationship between political well-being and happiness has been among the original questions of political philosophy, going back to at least Aristotle, who concluded that participation in political society, as a virtuous citizen of the polis, is fundamental to human happiness. Political philosophers, especially those belonging to the Enlightenment movement, also made efforts to quantify these categories, and their arcane assumptions are today more interesting for historical, rather than scientific, purposes. The 18th-century utilitarian thinker Jeremy Bentham, who posited happiness as the central criterion for his quantitative approach to ethics, in fact came up with a ‘felicific calculus’. This was a system for evaluating actions, whether by individual or state, where certain units of happiness caused (measured in hedons) would be cancelled out by units of pain produced (measured in dolors).

By the 1980s, however, these questions had been recast as technocratic problems whose solution lay in the politically influential discipline of neoclassical economics, not least because its methods and conclusions favoured free-market capitalism and opposed state welfare. Well-being was neatly recast under the economistic category of optimum utility, and public policy focused squarely on figures like GDP and per-capita income as metrics of progress. At a time when the Anglo-Saxon world in particular had unanimously adopted these economic indices as well-being indicators, economist and philosopher Amartya Sen revived the Aristotelian argument and pointed out that progress indicators needed to prioritise both commodities as well as capabilities. Sen went on to develop the ‘capabilities approach,’ which emphasised the need for access to public goods like health and education in developing human capability. In 1990, the UN formulated the Human Development Index (HDI), taking into account Sen and economist Mahbub ul Haq’s work, a welcome change that revived the conversation on the role of the state in achieving well-being for its citizens back into the political lexicon.

The HDI expanded the definition of development beyond GDP growth and individual incomes. However, substantive measurements of political well-being evaded the HDI, which measured income levels, life expectancy at birth, and educational attainments. The happiness report, therefore, marks a progress along that front, including factors like the freedom to make individual choices and perception of corruption. As the report notes, it implements “the Aristotelian presumption that sustained positive emotions are important supports for a good life.”

Well-being and inequality

Given the UN report’s emphasis on inequality in making its assessment on happiness, it is worth looking at some economic indices of Southasian countries. According to the World Bank’s 2016 data, at USD 1670, India’s gross national income (GNI) per capita is significantly below Maldives (USD 10,380), Sri Lanka (USD 3850) and Bhutan (USD 2510). The figure isn’t much higher for Pakistan (USD 1500) and Bangladesh (USD 1330). According to the same institution’s income-based Gini measurements, which look at income inequality, India fares towards the middle of the spectrum among the countries in the region.

However, it is the wealth inequality measurements in the region that paints a picture that appears to be closest to the assessments of the happiness report. Assets like land and property serve as important indicators for understanding one’s quality of life in Southasia. Since large sections of the region’s economies are unorganised, wealth is also a more sound metric for measuring inequality than income is. According to the Global Wealth Databook 2017 published by Credit Suisse, India is among the most unequal countries in the world, with a wealth-based Gini coefficient of 83.0. According to this report, India’s richest ten percent of households own 62.1 percent of the wealth in the country. India’s Southasian neighbours fare much better; Pakistan leads with a Gini coefficient of 52.6, followed by Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal.

One might, however, object to this line of argument by pointing out that the wealth-based Gini is not high only for Southasian countries. In fact, the average Gini coefficient for the five Southasian countries under consideration, according to the 2017 Credit Suisse report, comes to 65.5, which is much less than the average Gini ratings for Denmark, Norway and Sweden (81.6), which appear near the top of both the Democracy Index and the World Happiness Report.

It is important to reiterate here that the Gini measurements made by Credit Suisse in its 2017 Global Wealth Databook are based on wealth inequality and not on income inequality. The reason why Scandinavian countries are able to exhibit high wealth inequality and still maintain high happiness levels is due to strong welfare states in the region. As the 2014 Global Wealth Report explains, “security programs – good public pensions, free higher education or generous student loans, unemployment and health insurance – can greatly reduce the need for personal financial assets. Public housing programs can do the same for real assets.” As a result of the state’s effective welfare services, the middle class has fewer incentives to accumulate wealth, skewing the wealth distribution in favour of the rich.

Public welfare for democracy

We have identified wealth inequality as a potential explanatory framework for explaining India’s condition within the region. But when compared to the rest of the world, the story seems to be similar across Southasian countries. According to the World Happiness Report, the average happiness score for Southasia is the lowest among all the regions in the world.

Extensive state welfare measures for basic goods, if implemented well, may positively impact happiness levels despite the region maintaining high wealth inequality levels. As Amartya Sen and Jean Drèze argue in the case of India in An Uncertain Glory, an urgent and significant investment in public welfare services is needed if the country is to make any significant progress in increasing human capability. They also highlighted how countries that are much smaller and more economically constrained, such as Bangladesh and Nepal, made strong strides in several well-being indicators, such as maternal mortality rates, in which India has consistently lagged.

But the political-economic dichotomy of well-being shouldn’t be overdone. In fact, according to the two studies, there is a higher likelihood of the happier countries also being more democratic: 22 of the 25 countries that lead the happiness report are also among the EIU’s top 32 democracies.

So it would be incorrect to conclude that the factors evaluated in the Democracy Index are mutually exclusive from those that are part of the WHR. For example, the ‘freedom to make life choices’ metric in the WHR is a fair replacement for ‘pluralism’ and ‘civil liberties’ in the Economist Group’s Democracy Index. Similarly, the WHR’s ‘freedom from corruption’ is very close to ‘functioning of government’ and ‘political culture’ in the EIU calculations. The fact that these factors are evaluated through opinion polls makes the correlation much more likely.

Whether it be political freedoms as codified in the law, or availability of public goods and services ensured by the state, both are indicators of people’s access to power and its distribution in society. While increasing incomes and addressing inequalities should be a priority for the government, if the pursuit of happiness is to play any part in our social vision, it requires we maintain a constant vigilance to ensure a healthy state of democracy. In fact, what is increasingly clear from trends around the world, from the United States and Brazil to Turkey and Russia, is that people are most capable of defending democracies precisely when the welfare mechanism is robust; unequal and helpless societies are also the most vulnerable to the breakdown of democracy.

~Sreejith Sugunan is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, and is currently based in Delhi.

One Response to “On happiness and democracy”

  1. K SHESHU BABU says:

    In the last couple of months, the democrativalues have taken a severe dip and consequently, happiness among people decreased. Economic measures like demonetization and GST have pushed ordinary people into unemployment and poverty. Hence, slipping in the ranks is not all that surprising. It may take some time before rejuvenaration and recoupment from the present state of quagmire

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