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How Much Is Enough?

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October 17, 2012

Tags Free MarketsInterventionismOther Schools of Thought

Robert Skidelsky is best known for his three-volume biography of Lord Keynes, and his son Edward is a philosopher who has written an excellent book on Ernst Cassirer.1 How Much Is Enough? contains valuable discussions of happiness research in economics and of global warming, as well as a capsule history of a good deal of both Western and Asian intellectual history; but unfortunately the book is a disappointment. It rehashes stale complaints against the free market, and its policy proposals have sinister implications.

As sometimes happens, an item hidden away in the notes best brings out the prime tendency of the book. The authors cite with evident approval an argument advanced by the sociologist Juliet Schor. She

argues that if policy-makers want individuals to develop more sustainable lifestyles, they should not rely on asking people reduce their current levels of income and consumption: "approaches that structurally stem the flow of increased income into consumer's hands are more promising." (p. 221, note 24, quoting Schor)

In other words, don't ask people to spend their money in the way you prefer: make sure they never get the money in the first place.

Skidelsky père et fils have, as we shall soon see, a drastic program, fully in accord with Schor's suggestion, but, strangely, they fail to grasp the nature of their own proposals. In what we may call oblivious paternalism, they present their own measures to reshape people's lives as fully consistent with respect for freedom.

Our commitment to personality and respect rules out coercion. Rather we aim to bias social arrangements in favor of the good life — to make it easier for people to organize their own exits from the rat race, for instance by discovering for themselves ways of life in which money-making is not central. No political system can avoid bias, however much it proclaims its neutrality.… If we are to be paternalists, let us be honest rather than backdoor paternalists. (p. 217)

The authors, in dulcet tones, act as if they were offering mild suggestions designed to help people to a better life; but the reality is otherwise. In their preferred scheme of things, advertising would be strongly restricted

in the name of consumer protection. A lot of consumption is wasteful in the sense people buy products about whose qualities they are ignorant or misinformed: the products do not work or do not do the work they were bought for.… It would be better to try to prevent this kind of waste by requiring all advertisements to carry prominent health warnings, as is now mandatory for cigarettes.… One tax reform would cut at the root of the advertising culture: disallowing firms to write off advertising as a business expense.… Such a tax would damage the financing of commercial television.… Internet advertising could be taxed in the same way. The policies suggested above … are paternalist, but non-coercive. They are designed to edge societies towards the good life, not force it down their throats. (pp. 210–11)

In line with Schor's suggestion, though, it will not be entirely up to people themselves whether they accept guidance from the warnings. Under the Skidelsky plan, people will be subject to a substantial consumption tax: they will thus have less money to spend on useless fripperies.

In a dynamic economy, the prohibition or taxation of particular goods is ineffectual as well as arbitrary, since individuals determined to show off their wealth can always find alternative ways of doing so. However, this objection does not apply to a general consumption tax. (p. 205)

What would people, deprived — non-coercively of course — of part of their income and of access to information that would enable them to spend what remains do with the time that exiting from the rat race has made available to them? Our authors have a suggestion to offer: In a world of "enoughness,"

the main incentive to be "economically purposive for others after it had ceased to be reasonable for oneself" would be to help the very poor of the world climb to our already achieved level of sufficiency.… A voluntary sacrifice of one's own comforts for the sake of helping the less fortunate is universally recognized as morally admirable. Even today more and more people find a natural outlet for their generous and (adventurous) instincts in voluntary service at home and abroad. (pp. 215–16, quoting Keynes).

In sum, because people spend too much money on consumer goods, they do not lead good lives. Instead, they should serve the world's poor in order to attain lives of fulfillment. Evidently, the authors have arrived at, however unintentionally, an antithesis to the rational selfishness of Ayn Rand.

Why do the Skidelskys object to the way people choose to spend their own money? In their view, present-day consumers ignore ancient wisdom, both Western and Eastern. The way to a good life, premodern philosophy taught, does not lie in a quest for money for its own sake. Rather, money is just a tool, and we must be satisfied with "enough" material goods, rather than constantly strive to amass more of them. As Aristotle said,

"Some men turn every quality or art into a means of getting wealth." The results of this corruption are evident across the board: doctors think only of their fee; soldiers fight only for pay; sophists trade wisdom for gain. Craftsmanship also suffers … Aristotle's second concern is with insatiability. Use-values have … a controlling end: the good life. To pursue them beyond this point is senseless. Money, by contrast, has no controlling end. As a blank, all-purpose instrument, its uses are as multifarious as human desire itself, and as limitless. (p. 75)

Let us suppose that Aristotle is entirely right that the unlimited pursuit of money will not result in happiness: money is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Whether he is in fact correct is no doubt an important question, but it is not necessary to address it here in order to respond to what the Skidelskys have to say. Aristotle's point about money does not imply that people should not strive after a large assortment of material goods. Do people in well-off societies today want "too much"? The Skidelskys wring their hands in horror over lavish consumer spending, but they offer little reason to think that such spending impedes living a good life. To say that an abundance of goods is not required for a good life does not suffice.

Further, even if they were right about the nature of the good life, why should the state endeavor to "persuade" people to do what is supposed to be good for them? Even if there is some way to distinguish between people's wants and what they really need, why should this concern the state? There is a rather famous argument in John Stuart Mill's On Liberty that "Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest." Surely the Skidelskys have encountered this argument in their wide reading; but, though they several times cite Mill when he supports points they wish to make, they never respond to his formidable argument against paternalism.

Perhaps, though, their response is to be found in their claim that the state cannot be neutral about conceptions of the good life: this, they think, is a delusion of modern liberals like Rawls. But why can't it be neutral? Suppose it simply refrains from trying to suggest to people how they spend their money. What is this but neutrality?

No one could suggest that the Skidelskys are neutral. They say that

the capitalist system in our part of the world is entering its degenerative phase. The chief sign of this is the dominance of finance, in love with itself but increasingly bereft of useful things to do. The Anglo-American version of individualistic capitalism is kept going largely for the benefit of a predatory plutocracy, whose members cream off the richest prizes while justifying their predation in the language of freedom and globalization. (p. 181)

This might have come straight out of the British Fascist Sir Oswald Mosley, the subject of a sympathetic biography by the senior author of How Much Is Enough?2

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