25 August 2022

The answer to Britain’s problems? Ameliorism

By Andrew Hunt

On 16th July, our third child, Amelie Flora Rose, was born. 

Like every parent we want our children to grow up happy and fulfilled. And yet every paper and magazine is full of stories about the mental health crisis afflicting Gen Z. Worse still, the problem seems to be starting younger and younger, with six year olds suffering anxiety over climate change and insomnia over Ukraine. Whatever happened to kicking a ball, playing with sticks, or even just watching cartoons? 

In difficult times, it can feel like parents who want to raise resilient children must choose whether to raise them as pessimists who always expect the worst, or optimists who wait around for something good to come along.

But there is another way: Ameliorism. It’s a concept that has its roots in the Victorian era, underpinning 19th century Britain’s starring role in world progress. Ameliorists believe that life will be better if we all make a continuous personal effort to improve things. In other words, it is up to us to use our ingenuity, creativity and industry to overcome our anxieties.  

Even today, Ameliorism is everywhere if you dare look; from Rod Stewart repairing potholes to the triumph of free schools. When people are empowered to take responsibility for problems great and small, miracles happen. 

Furthermore, Ameliorism is the perfect philosophy for the digital age. With crowdfunding and crowdsourcing, everyone can make good things happen. 

Imagine we’d asked beneficiaries of HS2 to pay for the first 20%. We’d have quickly found out if the project was worthwhile at all.  And no doubt, we would have found more innovative and better value proposals. Further, if real people and real businesses had their money on the line, there’d be a big incentive to ensure things happened on budget.

Like crowdfunding, crowdsourcing is standard practice among leading innovators. Crowdsourcing rarely offers a prize, yet thousands of experts participate in projects every day. It is in our DNA to enjoy problem-solving.

The most tragic thing about the political environment is the persistent refrain that ‘the Government has run out of ideas’. How can this be? The country is brimming with creatives, entrepreneurs and technical experts all keen to help. 

And their ideas can tackle our biggest problems. There are myriad climate change fixes that could be introduced tomorrow at zero or negative cost to the taxpayer. And there is a litany of cost of living solutions, many of which would actually require less money and regulation. 

What about public sector pay demands? A digital ameliorist would empower the workers: You guys know where all the waste is, so go and save us a few billion and we’ll split it 50:50.  

The problem is not a lack of ideas or enthusiasm, it is bandwidth. Access to government has been monopolised by the Blob and special interest groups who wish to keep everything as it is. Two decades into the housing crisis and the perennial solution is another ‘crisis meeting’ with the big house-builders. Meanwhile, there are myriad viable solutions that do not involve a war with the nimbys, such as street votes, roof extensions, or change of use for the 500,000 boarded up shops.  

And when it comes to the troubled NHS, Ameliorism may provide part of the solution. In their book, Resilience, academics Steven Southwick and Dennis Charney have profiled the world’s most resilient people. These are people who have suffered disability, disease, family bereavement and even prolonged torture. Yet they have all re-emerged as happy and contributing members of society. The commonality is,

‘All of the resilient people we interviewed accepted responsibility for their own emotional well-being and personal growth…Ultimately, resilience is about understanding the difference between fate and freedom, and learning to take responsibility for one’s own life.’ 

Not only that, they got to the mindset very quickly, often within days or weeks of the trauma. These inspiring stories betray the paradox at the heart of the healthcare system, and the cause of healthcare hyperinflation. Healthcare systems allow us to outsource responsibility for our health. In some cases (such as cancer) this is necessary. But in many cases, turning a personal problem into a public problem is a recipe for failure. Furthermore, prolonged courses of treatment and waiting lists prevent that quick recovery. This is why problems such as mental health and obesity grow faster than the state can throw resources at them. 

An Ameliorist healthcare system would encourage patients to quickly make their own recovery plan. It would rebrand the NHS a as the National Self-help Service, and adopt the slogan, #TakeResponsibility. GPs would begin by asking patients what they were doing about their complaints. The result would be less sickness, better outcomes and quicker recoveries. 

If Ameliorism can free the country from this depressing morass, what is stopping us? 

As Matt Ridley recently observed, ‘pessimism is the handmaid of statism’. The only way a domineering state can justify its existence is by framing every problem as overwhelming, against which individual brilliance is futile. We are all helpless and must wait for big nanny to rescue us, in return for our wealth and our freedom.

That hands the state a perfect excuse every time it fails, as well as a justification for ever more intervention. If a lockdown doesn’t stop the spread, we need a more draconian lockdown. If measures fail to slow climate change, it’s an excuse for more flawed projects. The worse the NHS performs, the greater the demands for money. 

Today’s mental health crisis is a direct result of statism. Statism sets out to belittle our individual talent, to disempower us and strip us of self-belief. Unsurprisingly, Socialist regimes have a long history of high suicide rates.

To build a nation of Ameliorists, the government should start by adopting the slogan, #TakeResponsibility. That should apply to everyone; from NHS patients to Bank of England Governors and civil servants shirking their duties. Just as Sweden did with Covid, government needs to identify when handing accountability back to individuals will yield better results, and have the courage to do so.

Then we should borrow from tech and use crowd-sourcing and crowd-funding to solve problems. Great innovators can deliver at pace. Kate Bingham’s vaccine rollout showed us precisely how to do that. Bypass the civil service, impose tough externally measurable targets with full public accountability, and push autonomy to the frontline.  

And lastly, if we don’t want bossy, depressed, or sick children, we parents need to bring up the next generation as Ameliorists. If young people can take it on themselves to keep their promises, improve society and save the planet, then we can all be optimists.

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Andrew Hunt is a writer, investor and policy blogger.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.