What Price the Good Life?
All civilisations – except our own – have believed in a universal good life, with money solely a means towards that end, writes James Sainsbury. How Much Is Enough? The Love of Money, and the Case for the Good Life by Robert Skidelsky & Edward Skidelsky. Allen Lane, 2012. ISBN: 9781846144486 What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets by Michael Sandel. Allen Lane, 2012. ISBN: 9781846144714
These two books restore economics to its true philosophical and moral context and move it away from its claimed position as a science.
The Skidelskys’ work How Much Is Enough? represents a major critique of our obsession with economic growth and of economics itself, which, having developed when scarcity was the norm, and efficiency and growth seemed to promise a better world, is now ill suited to a time, in the Western world, of previously unimaginable abundance.
The authors start with a speech made by John Maynard Keynes in 1930 predicting that by 2030 the UK would be about five times richer and we would all be working about five times less – creating more time for cultivated leisure. We are roughly that much richer, but what has happened to the free time? The Skidelskys answer that we have simply expanded our sense of what is enough and, if we continue to follow current orthodoxy, will continue to do so indefinitely, without any sense of an ultimate goal beyond further accumulation.
Before the scientific age, love of money was always seen as a moral flaw, and all cultures had a sense of what was enough (admittedly within a world without much expectation of social mobility or technological change). From Adam Smith onwards that view was replaced by a licensing of acquisitiveness as acceptable and even admirable.
Similarly, all civilisations have believed in a universal good life, and that money is a means towards that end, never an end in itself.
Politicians and economists today, however, no longer speak of a good life, but only about choice, efficiency, living standards or rights. They are almost universally unwilling to state their view of what a good life might be. This limitation is particularly serious as economics has now triumphed over its academic rivals and has become in effect the theology of our age.
Meanwhile, liberal thinkers everywhere believe in public neutrality between rival conceptions of the good life and will not judge one way of life to be more desirable than another or pass judgement on any wants. But their neutrality is a fiction because it leaves the interests of business free to dominate, always persuading us to consume more.
Up to a certain level of national wealth, of course, economic growth does promote the good life and can make it more widely available. Beyond that point, however, the pursuit of growth actually makes the good life less attainable, through the pressures it creates on time, relationships, Nature, self-confidence, satisfaction and health.
Unlike many authors, the Skidelskys don’t pull their punches when it comes to solutions: rather they are prepared to outline their definition of the good life and to specify policies that would help us to get there. A good life, they say, is not just a string of agreeable mental states, but one that embodies basic and universal human goods, which together give us genuine and lasting reason to be happy. These they define as health, security, respect, friendship, personality (meaning the time and space to develop autonomous individuality), leisure and harmony with Nature.
To lead us towards that good life, they propose policies such as a basic income for all, reduced pressure to consume through an enforced reduction in advertising (which has been called “the organised creation of dissatisfaction”) and a progressive consumption tax, plus a maximum limit of working hours across the EU and complementary rather than competitive trade.
Such ideas are controversial and indeed heretical from the orthodox economic point of view, but in terms of the good life, the case for them is unarguable. And it is the great achievement of this book to point this out so forcefully.
Michael Sandel’s book What Money Can’t Buy complements the Skidelskys’ work with its examination of the moral impact of market triumphalism. Sandel examines the way in which market values have invaded the public sphere through sport and other areas of life previously dominated by non-financial values, showing us the corrosive effects of this process. He writes: “The most fateful change that unfolded during the past three decades was not an increase in greed. It was the expansion of markets, and of market values, into spheres of life where they don’t belong.”
He gives numerous examples of things for which there is a new or hugely expanded market, such as prison cell upgrades, sponsorship naming of sports stadia, the buying and selling of human organs, the use of surrogate mothers from developing countries, the paying of people to stand in a queue to buy theatre tickets, the right to shoot a rhino and the right to emit carbon.
The triumph of market reasoning, he says, is emptying public life of moral argument and creating both unfairness and degradation of values.
Sandel’s examples show that “the last few decades have witnessed the remaking of social relations in the image of market relations” and that “the more markets expand their reach into noneconomic spheres of life, the more entangled they become with moral questions.”
Again echoing the Skidelskys, he points out that, far from being neutral, market mechanisms and incentives crowd out non-market norms, reducing the importance of the public sphere, civic spirit, the public good and the good life itself.
Sandel suggests that civic spirit must be regularly engaged and respected or it will wither away. “Altruism, generosity, solidarity, and civic spirit are not like commodities that are depleted with use,” he writes.
“They are more like muscles that develop and grow stronger with exercise. One of the defects of a market-driven society is that it lets these virtues languish.”
Both these outstanding books eloquently attack market triumphalism and the severe lack of moral, spiritual and aesthetic values in public debate about economic issues. They show that to confront the blinkered orthodoxy of endless growth we must have a clear and attractive alternative vision, a task for which, I would venture, The Resurgence Trust is surely very well suited.