My latest Lenten reading—and to be sure, it very much is Lenten reading—comes from two non-religious Britons: Robert Jacob Alexander, Baron Skidelsky, and his son Dr Edward Skidelsky: How Much Is Enough? Robert Skidelsky is an economist, and his son Edward is a philosopher, but between them Skidelsky père et fils here have given us a remarkable piece of writing that sits directly at the crux between the two disciplines.
It is also not entirely devoid of religious interest. The Lenten advice of the Holy Fathers is to ‘eat not to satiety’, but the Skidelskys point out with some degree of alarm that the very concept of satiety has been all but demolished in modern consumer culture. The wants of even the most wealthy and productive societies seem to be bottomless, creating ever newer and more ingenious ways of satisfying them—and yet our median quality of life has not improved accordingly. To the Skidelskys, this is not so much an economic problem in itself, as it is a humanities problem—one might go so far as to call it a philosophical or even religious problem.
The starting point for Robert Skidelsky, of course, is Keynes: in particular, a forward-looking utopian essay he delivered in 1928 entitled ‘Economic Possibilities’. He predicted that with greater means and capacities, the dynamo of capitalism would putter out, ushering an era of more humane and human-sized values:
I see us free to return to some of the most sure and certain principles of religion and traditional virtue—that avarice is a vice, that the exaction of usury is a misdemeanour, and the love of money is detestable, that those walk most truly in the paths of virtue and sane wisdom who take the least thought for the morrow. We shall once more value ends above means and prefer the good to the useful. We shall honour those who can teach us how to pluck the hour and the day virtuously and well, the delightful people who are capable of taking direct enjoyment in things, the lilies of the field, who toil not neither do they spin.
Keynes’s prediction, according to all of the empirical data available to hand in the OECD countries as of 2012 (when this book was written), went very badly awry. The rich nations are wealthier and more technologically-advanced than ever, but working hours, far from having decreased, have gone up. Wages have stayed stagnant. Life satisfaction has not improved with increased productivity. The consumer culture is characterised by unfulfilling conspicuous consumption among the rich and increasing desperation among the poor. The utopia of plenty and ease that the capitalist dynamo promised has grown further and further from view, while the dynamo keeps churning away under the banner of the elusive concept of ‘utility’.
The Skidelskys take note that the idea, let alone possibility, of unlimited growth without purpose is something very recent and unprecedented in human experience—and would have been an object of horror to the best and brightest minds of the classical civilisations. Aristotle, Confucius, the Dharmasutras, and later the Christian Gospels and the epistles of Saint Paul, all take a very dubious view of the whole enterprise of wealth acquisition—and although each of these classical sources held that the mercantile profession had its place and was necessary to the flourishing of any society, it was in no case the most virtuous of pursuits, and presented unique dangers to the holistic well-being of the one engaged in it. The Skidelskys sketch out a brief—but accurate and engaging—treatment of each of these three world philosophical traditions and their attitudes toward wealth, showing in each case that wealth is not considered an end in itself but always a means to some greater end. The Skidelskys, returning to Keynes’s essay and his hearkening to those who ‘pluck the day virtuously and well’, call the object of this Aristotelian-Confucian-Christian-Dharmic striving ‘the good life’.
They take observance, as well, of two of the major challenges to the growth-at-all-costs model of late capitalism. The first challenge to the late-capitalist model is the idea of the ‘gross national happiness’. The second challenge is that posed by the green movement, by environmental economics and both ‘deep’ and ‘shallow’ ecology.
The Skidelskys raise two objections to the ‘happiness economics’ approach. The first one is empirical. How do we know that the ‘happiness’ which people self-report on surveys of life satisfaction, for example, is actually reflective of their circumstances and overall well-being? Ultimately, despite the good intentions of said surveys and the people making use of them, what they’re doing is swapping out one black box (that of ‘utility’) for another (that of ‘happiness’). We don’t get to look inside that black box to see what makes it tick, and ultimately we are called on to accept the tautological reasoning of such surveys if we are to make use of that data.
The other objection the Skidelskys raise is moral. What if someone were to invent a wonder drug like the soma from Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, or what if someone were to invent a mechanical method of stimulating the pleasure centres of the brain (like BTL chips in Shadowrun, or Garak’s Obsidian Order endorphin implant in the DS9 episode ‘The Wire’)? What if a cheap and easy way were found to fool the brain into thinking it’s happy, even if the actual conditions of the user’s life were miserable? The Skidelskys assert that happiness economics, despite happiness economists’ protestations to the legal and rights-based limits of their focus, provides no real answer to this. If such ‘quick fixes’ made their way onto the market, it wouldn’t take a jaded cynical cyberpunk to understand that an innumerable, and intolerable, number of people would be tempted by them. Ultimately, the Skidelskys assert, with Solzhenitsyn, that it simply isn’t a good enough solution to replace the idol of growth with the idol of happiness.
They then turn to the ‘green’ approach. Of the Skidelskys’ three critiques, this one is the mildest and most sympathetic, although they do take intense issue both with some of the more-moderate and some of the more-radical environmentalist postures. Against the moderates, the Skidelskys assert that the logic they deploy is ultimately the same utilitarian cost-benefit logic deployed by mainstream neoclassical economists, only extended to a longer term. The moderates treat nature as something instrumental to a black-box ideal of human utility. Against the radicals, they assert that the totally-ascetic deontology of the ‘deep ecologists’ is a kind of frenzied Puritanism in the style of Cromwell and Savonarola. They detect—and in some cases they don’t have to dig very far to find made explicit—a fire-and-brimstone sermonising and warnings of all humankind as sinners in the hands of an angry goddess (said goddess being, naturally, Gaia).
The Skidelskys do want us to take a ‘deep’ consideration of nature, however. They are actually not too far in their actual understanding of ecology from writers like EF Schumacher or Wendell Berry. Unlike the moderates who approach nature with the detached attitude of dilettantes, and radicals for whom all human activity which exerts a force of change on nature is by that very fact ‘sinful’, the Skidelskys issue a call for active human engagement with and investment in nature—by farming, by fishing and by gardening, for example. Appreciation for nature on a local and personal scale is both salutary for ecosystems and healthy for the human soul.
After having launched a full broadside against the broken promises of capitalism and the growth ideology, a strong critique against the ‘happiness’ economists, and a milder and friendlier critique against the ecological economists, the Skidelskys lay their cards on the table. They articulate, over-against the liberal advocates (such as Rawls and Nussbaum) of the value-neutral state, a need for a positive doctrine of the ‘good life’ supported by public policy. This concept contains the basic goods of: health, security, respect, leisure, friendship (including family both nuclear and extended), personality and harmony with nature.
This is precisely the point at which How Much Is Enough? becomes something of a Tory radical altar call—and a remarkably effective and stirring one at that, one which made me want to dust off the old Cavalier regalia (figuratively speaking). It is not accidental that, despite the Skidelskys’ clear and insistent intellectual debt to Keynes, they deliberately make mention and use of a rather older, venerable but neglected strain of English economic thought in John Ruskin and William Morris. They anticipate, and to a certain extent welcome, the objection that they are advocating paternalism. Yes, say Robert and Edward Skidelsky, we are paternalists, but our paternalism is of a non-coercive sort which is compatible with life in a democratic society. What’s more: in making our choices about what the state should value explicit (rather than the implicit values which get smuggled in with the pursuit of growth or happiness), at least we’re being honest paternalists rather than ‘backdoor paternalists’.
Honestly, I find the Skidelskys’ modest and understated, but at the same time heartfelt, embrace of what winds up as a ‘crunchy conservative’ or a ‘red Tory’ position a bit more palatable than the recent offerings from, say, Milbank and Blond. The Skidelskys affirm their admiration for and inspiration from Catholic social theory, and they are at the very least willing to articulate a positive concept of the good life while allowing for alternative models elsewhere. They certainly aren’t advocating for cultural (or any other kind of) imperialism aimed at Africa, India, China or Russia—they in fact welcome alternative positive conceptions of the ‘good life’ which are applicable to different cultural contexts. (In fact, I was pleasantly tickled by their approving quote of Met. Anthony Bloom when discussing the paucity of black-box accounts of ‘happiness’.) On the other hand, the very same modesty of their approach to policy manifests in a similar modesty when it comes to policy recommendations.
The spread of policy fixes that Robert and Edward Skidelsky put forward are, as one might expect, a mixture of social-democratic supports to family life and leisure on the one hand, and social-conservative disincentives to conspicuous consumption on the other. They advocate for legislation enforcing a maximum work week for most businesses (with SMEs and family-run shops being possibly exempt), and also for a universal basic income, though their preference—in line with Keynes’s preference for the socialisation of investment—is for that basic income to be in the form of a capital dividend rather than a monthly cheque. They advocate for a range of taxation schemes meant to incentivise various aspects of the good life and disincentivise threats to it: including Tobin taxes on financial instrument transactions (whose proceeds would fund an endowment furnishing the capital dividend for all citizens) and a progressive consumption tax, as well as the elimination of tax policies which allow businesses to write off expenditures on advertising. Although they don’t object to immigration on principle, as well, they see the wisdom of taking certain legal precautions against mass immigration—they (quite rightly) don’t want to see their society bifurcate into another Dubai, with a permanent underclass of migrant helots.
If there’s a weak spot in How Much Is Enough?, I find it’s this last chapter. The sheer mildness with which these policy proposals at the end are put forward seems quite frankly quaint (eleven years out from its date of publication, when all the problems they observe in the capitalist dynamo have worsened dramatically). Personally (and this is me being more ‘red’ than ‘Tory’ again) I’d have liked to see them stump for some good old rabble-rousing schemes like Social Credit, the Safety Fund, the Subtreasury Plan, postal savings banks or nationalisation of rail and telecom. But perhaps that isn’t the point. This book sets out to raise the valid philosophical questions which should lie at the very heart of the economic discipline—what is our wealth for? What is our time for? This book is at its most powerful and thought-provoking when it is not only raising these questions but exploring their implications.