George Walford: The Quality of Life

One of the minor strengths of systematic ideology is its ability to account for features of social behaviour which at first sight appear trivial, by linking them with broader themes. One such feature appears in the distinction between quality of life and standard of living.

“Standard of living” is what governments and economists talk about. People who use the phrase thereby suggest that they are content with the type of life this society provides; they just want more of it, the same thing on a higher quantitative level.

“Quality of life” is not a phrase much used by governments or economists; it is found rather in the mouths of the moderate intellectuals, “the soft left,” the group that has reached a point of ideological development where a negative attitude toward existing society begins to appear.

From their viewpoint the trouble with “standard of living” is that it provides little ground for criticism. From the beginnings of society until today the tendency of the standard of living has been upward, and today it is the most highly industrialised societies that provide the highest standard of living for their people.

This is not what the intellectuals need. In order to justify their thinking they have to find grounds for criticising existing society, particularly its more advanced forms, and one of the many ways in which they do this is by asserting that it is not the standard of living (measurable and tending to rise) but the quality of life (not measurable and therefore infinitely arguable) that matters.

from Ideological Commentary 15, December 1984.