How Much Is Enough? Money and the Good Life

Robert Skidelsky

Book cover

This book would seem right up my alley, and in most ways, it was. It is written by two philosophers, so it didn’t suffer from the usual problems I find with popular-consumption econ books (though perhaps a philosopher reading it would find an analogous set of problems!).

Skidelsky pere is the author of the preeminent biography of Keynes, and the motivation for the book is a well-known essay by Keynes in which he speculated on the economic future. Based on his projections of the growth of income, he figured that by around now, people in developed countries would only need to work about 10 hours per week to meet their needs. Famously, his growth projections were remarkably accurate, but his conclusion was not. Given increasing incomes, people on the whole have chosen to work the same amount (or more) and consume more rather than work less and consume the same.

The authors’ argument is an interesting one, which has much in common with Alasdair MacIntyre’s argument in “After Virtue” (which the authors note). In traditional societies, including ancient Greece, there was a conception of “the good life” as a fairly objective thing to be aimed at, consisting in a finite set of reasonably well-defined things, chief among these, time for philosophical contemplation and public service. (I am not sure how much of a caricature this is. My sense is that people may have disagreed about the specific constituents of the good life, but that the existence of such a thing was not especially in question.)

One problem with this concept was that, due to the structure of these traditional societies, “the good life” was off-limits to most people. Eventually, the forces of capitalism came forth to offer what the Skidelskys very elegantly characterize as a “Faustian bargain”: by unleashing self-interest and acquisitive impulses from the bounds of tradition, it spurs economic development toward the point where most people will have the resources needed for a basic “good life”; yet by unleashing these forces, the capitalist economy also erodes away the mental and spiritual basis of the enjoyment of the good life. The competitive market can produce “enough” for everyone, but as competition comes to play a dominant role, our concept of “enough” withers away.

So far, so good. The authors take some interesting digressions into conceptions of the good life in various Eastern traditions, and into the modern field of happiness research. (They are quite leery of this field, for interesting reasons.) They put forward their own subjective list of the elements of the good life: things that are hard to argue with, such as health, respect, relationships, etc. This list didn’t seem very gripping to me, but also seemed fairly reasonable.

What really bugged me, though, was their concluding essays at possible government policies to encourage people to cultivate the good life. After an entire book of discussing these issues, they focus on a couple of specific policies: a universal basic income, where the state would provide an unconditional cash grant to each citizen, and a consumption tax (similar to the European VAT’s, although oddly they do not discuss these). The economic basis of each of these policy proposals is clear: given a basic income, people will be more free to devote their time to fulfilling pursuits; a tax on consumption will incentivize people to substitute away from consumption (for example, to more leisure time). And yet…the very logic by which these policies are intended to work is the same market-based logic that the authors call out as the very basis of the Faustian bargain! It was astonishing to me that they did not focus their policy proposals more on direct government provision of basic goods, as with a single-payer healthcare system. The fungibility of things like UBI would seem to make them relatively easy for competitive, capitalist values to withstand.

I am in agreement with the authors on many points, but am not sure where I stand on appropriate responses beyond an individual or household level. It may be overly pessimistic to say that nothing can be done beyond this level. For example, I think that changes to policies around parental leave, or changes to structures that create “cliff effects” between full- and part-time work could be beneficial. But it seems somewhat wrong-headed to me to envision the state being able to “nudge” people toward the good life (or even being capable of maintaining any coherent conception thereof). If changes in attitudes are going to come, I think that they are much more likely to take root based on the actions of smaller units, from families to churches to online communities to individual companies. I think conceptions of the good life are much more likely to be driven by the availability of positive examples than by policy innovations.

Over this past weekend, Elise discovered a blog that I read, called “Mr. Money Mustache,” and has really been enjoying it. Despite the silly name, I this blog (and the online/IRL community around it) is a strong and vibrant proponent of something like the good life described by the Skidelskys. I have always appreciated the anarchist line (not sure of the exact attribution) that a new society must be built “in the shell of the old.” I think something like MMM is a modest but powerful instantiation of that idea, and gives me much more inspiration than the Skidelskys’ policy ideas.

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars