Until very recently, most writers on happiness shared a common assumption. Happiness was more than a series of internal states; it was way of being in the world, including the public world. It was, in short, about living the good life. We need to recover that way of thinking. The father-and-son team of Robert and Edward Skidelsky have made a significant start in How Much is Enough?
The good life has always had much to do with politics—not because societies can be organized to promote personal happiness by “maximizing utility,” but because they can be organized to reduce unnecessary suffering. The Skidelskys recognize the inevitability of insecurity in human life, not to mention the impossibility and even potential undesirability of eliminating it from human society. They remember, perhaps too vividly, how easily visions of abundance for all succumbed to the totalitarian temptation throughout the twentieth century. Still, they also recognize the possibility of easing certain kinds of economic insecurity through enlightened public policy. A society that frees people from anxiety about basic necessities might not make them happier (“The tears of the world are a constant quantity”), but it might provide them a better shot at the good life. This is where John Maynard Keynes comes in.
Keynes’s influence on public policy has been profound and, on the whole, useful—one could say necessary. He formulated the monetary and fiscal policies that, in the decades following World War II, allowed welfare states on both sides of the Atlantic to flatten the curves in the business cycle and move societies closer to full employment. For a variety of complicated reasons (which the Skidelskys explore), the wheels came off the Keynesian bus in the late 1970s. But that doesn’t mean his policy recommendations are no longer relevant; on the contrary, as Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz and other economists have argued, Keynesian policies of underwriting aggregate demand are precisely what is needed in this era of Great Recession. The Skidelskys endorse Keynes’s policy relevance (indeed, Robert has done so at book length in Keynes: The Return of the Master). But in this book, they are more interested in Keynes as philosopher of the good life than as economist.
The Skidelskys begin with Keynes’s 1930 essay, “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren,” which argued that the material basis for the good life was taking shape. The Skidelskys summarize: “As technological progress made possible an increase in the output of goods per hour worked, people would have to work less and less to satisfy their needs, until in the end they would have to work hardly at all. Then, Keynes wrote, ‘for the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem—how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.’” This could well happen, Keynes believed, by 2030.
All indications are that it won’t. Since the 1980s, in Britain and the United States, working hours have been rising steadily among all classes—including the wealthy, the traditional cultivators of leisure. The rich world is four or five times wealthier than in 1930, but average hours of work have fallen only 20 percent since then. The utopia of abundance and leisure is nowhere in sight. And so the Skidelskys want to know: “Why did Keynes’s prophecy fail?”
Posing that question is a good way to illuminate the impact of economic imperatives on cultural values during the decades since Keynes wrote. Though his policy prescriptions remain vital to our time, his philosophical assumptions seem charmingly archaic in the contemporary world of go-go capitalism. He believed that people had a finite quantity of material needs and that once those needs were met, they would kick back and cultivate genuine leisure. This expectation depended on a distinction between needs (which were material) and wants (which were merely psychic). What Keynes did not foresee is that wants have turned out to be infinitely expansive and easily mistaken for needs. The distinction between needs and wants has all but disappeared from the academy—not only from economics departments, but from the social sciences and humanities as well. The discovery that wants could be recast as needs, that luxuries could be transformed into necessities, has allowed the engines of economic growth to run endlessly. They can slow or stop, the Skidelskys write, only if “people choose not to want more than they need.”
This emphasis on the sovereignty of choice is uncharacteristically single-minded, but in general the Skidelskys are admirably open to multiple interpretations of consumer insatiability. How does one explain this “continuous, unsatisfied craving for more than one has”? Answers, they acknowledge, are no doubt rooted in the dim recesses of “human nature,” but one does not have to be a Marxist (and the Skidelskys are as determined as Keynes to distance themselves from Marx) to acknowledge that capitalism might have something to do with it. For two centuries or more, capitalist institutions have been manipulating wants, stoking status anxiety, rejecting sufficiency. (There is no such thing as “enough” for the hero of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, the go-getter acting on his natural instincts.) We have learned that under capitalism, everything can be monetized. The enlargement of the sphere of monetary value allows the direct comparison of goods previously considered incommensurable. “Education, for instance, is increasingly seen not as a preparation for the good life but as a means to increase the value of ‘human capital,’” the Skidelskys write. The monetary standard dissolves familiar notions of the real: “Traders in futures, derivatives and other rarefied financial products need know nothing at all of the actual goods that lie at the end of their transactions.” The obsession with money, far from promoting “materialism,” actually devalues certain forms of material life. Even as money remains a means for acquiring material goods to fashion a self, the goods themselves (like the self) become mobile and disposable, more and more ephemeral.
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