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Social Progress Index shows flawed GDP is best gauge we have

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Compilers of the new Social Progress Index (SPI) can't be faulted for lack of ambition. They have synthesized no fewer than 52 indicators – from water withdrawals per capita to deaths from HIV, from fixed broadband subscriptions to political terror – to arrive at what they hope is a robust and meaningful measure of national well-being.

The 52 factors are combined first into three categories – basic human needs, foundations of well-being, and opportunity – and then into a single number. Sweden leads the 50-nation list with a score of 64.8, while Ethiopia is at the bottom with 26.7.

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The SPI can be faulted, however, for being arbitrary and biased. Some indicators are relatively uncontroversial, but others simply reflect a subjective, Western, currently-fashionable left-liberal agenda. The assumption that this, or indeed any collection of inputs, can be accepted as delivering a reasonably objective list of the components of the good life, smacks of moral and intellectual arrogance.

True, as a measure of a nation's well-being, the traditional GDP is defective. Where the SPI is too broad, GDP is uncomfortably narrow. That said GDP, the total value of goods and services purchased in a given place in a given period, is a pretty good indicator of prosperity. Comparisons of GDP per person also correlate pretty well with common sense. The typical Frenchman is indeed much better off than the typical Argentine, even if the precision of the World Bank's calculations of 101 per cent higher GDP is spurious.

In one way, it hardly matters. SPI and GDP rankings are very close. In another, the SPI results amplify the silliness of all indices. It is nonsense to say that Social Progress in the U.K. is precisely 2.2 per cent less than in Sweden. And it is not only Francophiles who will be puzzled to learn that France has exactly 4.3 per cent less Social Progress than Britain.

The biggest imperfection, in GDP, SPI and the many other would-be benchmarks, is that well-being cannot be measured. It is a quality, not a quantity. GDP is a bad measure, but the alternatives may well be worse.

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