Book Review — How Much is Enough?

In 1928, the scion of 20th century British economics John Maynard Keynes addressed a room full of Cambridge undergraduates on the subject of ‘economic possibilities for our grandchildren’. Keynes – a far more radical thinker than contemporary caricatures of him as the stolid grandfather of ‘tax and spend’ economics suggest – told his audience that, thanks to economic growth, the West was on the verge of having sufficient resources to satisfy all human wants.

By the time Keynes redrafted the Cambridge lecture for publication, the Wall Street had hit – but the catastrophe did little, if anything, to dampen the great economist’s expectations. In ‘Economic Possibilities’, published in 1930, Keynes predicted that, in a hundred years time, standards of living in the West would increase four to eight times in a hundred years time, based on estimates of capital equipment growth by 2 per cent per annum and an annual increase in ‘technical efficiency’ of 1 per cent.

Keynes’ growth predictions have proved remarkably accurate (albeit not always for the reasons he cited): today GDP per capita is, on average, around four times higher than it was in 1930. But the increased wealth has not been a harbinger of Keynes’ state of ‘Bliss’: instead of the vaunted three-hour working day and the advent of the leisure society, working hours have fallen only a fifth in the last 80 years, and among the wealthy have risen sharply.

‘Considered in relation to our vital needs, our state is not one of scarcity but rather of extreme abundance.’ So why do many of us work long hours in the desperate pursuit of a life packed with consumer goods but with precious time for physical and spiritual enrichment? If ‘the good life’ is materially possible, why are we so far from achieving it? These questions are at the core of Robert and Edward Skidelsky’s thought-provoking attempt to divine just how much is enough for a satisfying, fruitful life.

Pater familias Robert is an economist and author a three-volume biography of Keynes. His son, Edward, is an academic philosopher. How Much is Enough?, bears the hallmarks of both disciplines: among the reams of economic data and discussions of Smith, Marx and Friedman are chapters devoted to that most Socratic of questions, what is the good life and how can it be realised.

The authors’ primary target is the cult of growth for growth’s sake (‘a kind of Prozac’). The festishisation of GDP statistics – notoriously poor indicators of citizens’ wealth within a given country – are one symptom of a malaise. Another is the rise of ‘happiness’ as a nostrum for the 21st century.

Politicians across the Western world, most notably David Cameron in Britain, have embraced the new ‘happiness economics’, pioneered by Richard Layard. Happiness, in this calibration, can be measured on easy to administer 11-point life satisfaction surveys, often producing the most anodyne of results. (a recent government-funded study in the UK found that people were least happy in the deindustrialised, unemployment black spot of South Wales.)

The Skidelskys have no time for the ‘false idol’ of happiness metrics, turning instead to Aristotle and the ancient Greek notion of eudiamon (oft translated as ‘happy’, but in reality a more complex concept involving harmony between action, character, deliberation and circumstance). Crucially Aristotle’s conception of the good life included a sizeable chunk of schole, or leisure, a facet conspicuous by its absence from so many modern working, and indeed non-working, lives.

So why do we work so much? The answer, the Skidelskys argue, is a dyad of inequality and the drive to consume more. Since the 1980s inequality of wealth and income has grown hugely in the US and the Britain (and in Ireland). Rising inequality has a knock-on effect on hours worked as we strive to compete with one another: Britons work, on average, 1,650 hours a year, in the US the figure is 1,800. In Holland, it’s 1,400.

As well as setting out their seven elements of the good life (health, security, respect, personality, harmony with nature, friendship and leisure), the authors propose a series of policy reforms to hasten an exit ‘from the rat race’. These include an unconditional basic or citizen’s income (a fund along these lines in Alaska has made it the most equal of all US states); a version of traditional sumptuary laws to reduce Veblenian conspicuous consumption; and a significant reduction in advertising.

It’s an avowedly paternalist formula, and, at times, one that privileges a particularly middle class sensibility (not least in a tautologous argument over why wine contributes to the good life while crack cocaine does not). But the greatest criticism of the book is the Skidelsky’s lack of a concomitant political vision for how their many credible propositions might actually be enacted.

How Much is Enough? makes a cogent philosophical and economic argument for the good life – but almost a hundred years on from Keynes’ Cambridge lecture making ‘Bliss’ a reality remains as elusive as ever.

This review appeared in the Sunday Business Post in August 2012.