1 What is national wellbeing and why measure it?

not all the calculators of the National Debt can tell me the capacity for good or evil, for love or hatred, for patriotism or discontent … at any single moment in the soul of one of these its quiet servants.

Charles Dickens, Hard Times

This book is about social progress: its definition and its measurement. In particular, it is concerned with the overall wellbeing or quality of life of the people in a nation at a point in time, how this has changed (i.e. ‘progress’) and whether it is sustainable. In exploring this topic, the book seeks to address three primary questions:

  • What is national wellbeing?
  • Why should national wellbeing be measured?
  • How should national wellbeing be measured?

Underlying those three primary questions lie others, including:

  • What is individual wellbeing?
  • What is wrong or inadequate with existing measures of progress?
  • How do we measure national wellbeing, rather than just describe the state of the nation when we measure specific aspects of wellbeing?
  • How do the current and future states of the environment, including stocks of natural resources, fit into our understanding of wellbeing?

All of these questions are interwoven. For example, the definition of wellbeing and its method of measurement are two sides of the same coin, and the meaning of national wellbeing depends both on what is meant by individual wellbeing and on how one aggregates individual values to produce a national value, as well as whether ...

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