The essential, the useless and the harmful (part 1)

Éloi Laurent

The Covid-19 crisis
is still in its infancy, but it seems difficult to imagine that it will lead to
a “return to normal” economically. In fact, confinement-fuelled reflections
are already multiplying about the new world that could emerge from the
unprecedented conjunction of a global pandemic, the freezing of half of
humanity, and the brutal drying up of global flows and the economic activity.
Among these reflections, many of which were initiated well before this crisis,
the need to define what is really essential to human well-being stands out:
what do we really need? What can we actually do without?

Let us first reason
by the absurd, as Saint-Simon invited us to do back in 1819. “Suppose that
France suddenly loses … the essential French producers, those who are
responsible for the most important products, those who direct the works most useful
to the nation and who render the sciences, the fine arts and the crafts
fruitful, they are really the flower of French society, they are of all the
French the most useful to their country, those who procure the most glory, who add
most to its civilization and its prosperity: the nation would become a lifeless
corpse as it lost them… It would require at least a generation for France to
repair this misfortune…”. It is in the mode of the parable that Saint-Simon
thus tried to explain the hierarchical reversal that the new world of the
industrial revolution implied for the country’s prosperity, which could
henceforth do without the monarchical classes, in his view, whereas
“Science and the arts and crafts” had become essential.

Adapting Saint-Simon’s
parable to the current situation amounts to recognizing that we cannot do
without those who provide the care, guarantee the food supply, maintain the
rule of law and the supply of public services in times of crisis, and operate
the infrastructure (water, electricity, digital networks). This implies that in
normal times all these professions must be valued in line with their vital
importance. The resulting definition of human well-being resembles the
dashboard formed by putting together the different boxes in the pandemic travel certificates that every French person must fill out in order to
be able to move out of their confinement.

But it is possible to
flesh out this basic reflection by using the numerous studies carried out over
the decades on the measurement of human well-being, work which has greatly accelerated in the last
ten years in the wake of the “great recession”. We can start by
considering what is essential in the eyes of those questioned about the sources
of their well-being. Two priorities have emerged: health and social connections. In this respect, the current situation offers a
striking “well-being paradox”: drastic measures of confinement are sometimes
being taken to preserve health, but they in turn lead to the deterioration of
social connections due to the imposed isolation.

But how better to
begin to positively identify the different factors in “essential
well-being” that should now be the focus of public policy? Measuring
poverty can help here in measuring wealth. The pioneering empirical work of
Amartya Sen and Mahbub ul Haq in the late 1980s resulted in a definition of
human development that the Human Development Indicator, first published by the United Nations in 1990, reflects only in part: “Human development is a
process of enlarging people’s choices. The most critical of these wide-ranging
choices are to live a long and healthy life, to be educated and to have access
to resources needed for a decent standard of living. Additional choices include
political freedom, guaranteed human rights and personal self-respect.”
More specifically, in the French case, the work undertaken in 2015 by the
National Observatory of Poverty and Social Exclusion (Onpes) on reference budgets, and extended in
particular by INSEE with its “indicator of
poverty in living conditions
“, has led to defining the essential
components of an “acceptable” life (we could also speak of “decency”).

But let’s suppose
that these measurement instruments contribute, upon recovery from the crisis,
to defining an essential well-being (which key workers would maintain in the crisis
situations that are sure to be repeated under the impact of ecological shocks);
expertise alone would not be enough to trace its contours. A citizens’
convention needs to take up the matter.

This is all the more
so as the definition of essential well-being naturally evokes two other
categories that are even more difficult to define, to which this blog will
return in the coming days: useless (or artificial) well-being, that which can
be dispensed with harmlessly; and harmful well-being, which we must do without
in the future because in addition to being ancillary it harms essential well-being,
in particular because it undermines the foundations for well-being by leading
to the worsening of ecosystems (this is the debate taking place in Europe on whether
it is necessary to save the airlines). The debate over essential well-being has
just begun…