“We need to address the societal well-being of our nation, not just the economic well-being,” Jacinda Ardern told the World Economic Forum earlier this year. New Zealand’s prime minister said that to meet people’s real needs, politics would need to operate through a lens of “kindness, empathy and well-being”.
The world has known for generations that GDP doesn’t capture what makes life most worthwhile, and that it’s a poor proxy for human flourishing. It’s originator, Simon Kuznets, warned about it right from the start. Robert F Kennedy gave a famous speech about its limitations in 1968. David Cameron wrote while in opposition that “the pursuit of wealth is no longer – if it ever was – enough to meet people’s hope and aspirations”.
So we know that we need to do better than GDP, and all sorts of alternatives have been developed, including Britain’s wellbeing dashboard. What we don’t see very often is those measures brought into decision making. They tend to be optional nice things to have on the side while the serious politicians deal with growth. So it is refreshing to see New Zealand announce a world first ‘wellbeing budget’, and its intention to measure its success by the wellbeing of its citizens.
“Sure, we had – and have – GDP growth rates that many other countries around the world envied” said finance minister Grant Robertson, “but for many New Zealanders, this GDP growth had not translated into higher living standards or better opportunities.”
In practice, the Wellbeing Budget focuses on the things that we know affect people’s health and happiness, with a big investment in mental health as the headline measure. It also makes a priority of childhood poverty and education, as giving children a good start can have a lifetime of positive effects.
Time will tell whether this works or not, but it’s certainly a far cry from the infrastructure announcements and tax tweaks that typify British budget speeches. Perhaps that will change in time, because Jacinda Ardern is not the only politician living out a kinder, more human-centric politics. There are similar movements at work in Scotland, Iceland, and in Costa Rica, among others.
A politics of kindness, empathy and well-being sounds well worth supporting. And given its focus on the most vulnerable, perhaps we could add Christ-like to that description.