How Much is Enough? Money and the Good Life

by

“Growth” is one of the great watchwords of modern society, often invoked by politicians and economists as the absolute criterion of economic success. In How Much is Enough?: Money and the Good Life, Robert and Edward Skidelsky—an economist and a philosopher, respectively—challenge the assumption that the perpetual pursuit of growth should be the end of economic policy. Objecting to growth not principally on economic, but on moral grounds, the Skidelskys contend that, while the quest for growth has vastly increased our material welfare, it has also in many ways hampered our enjoyment of the good life. And yet, they conclude, it is precisely this material abundance that now makes possible a more just economic order, one conducive to human flourishing.

In advancing their ethical critique of the “growth economy,” the Skidelskys’ approach falls roughly into four parts. The book begins by examining why our society is so fixated on growth. The two sources for this fixation, they argue, are workplace power relations and the insatiability of desire in capitalism. Concerning the first, employers, by virtue of their greater negotiating power, are able to make their employees work more than they might otherwise, since this leads to greater profits. As for the second, although a feature present in every human society, insatiability is exacerbated under capitalism—through the ubiquity of advertising, the ever-broadening reach of the market, competition between firms, and the denial of an objective standard of “enough.”

Next, the Skidelskys turn to historical considerations. On the one hand, they examine various historical factors that contributed to the rise of capitalism and therefore to the growth economy. On the other hand, as against the valorization of greed and growth characteristic of our age, they examine the reasons why the ancient world, both West and East, rejected rampant moneymaking and insisted on limits to the desire for wealth. While modern economics considers itself to be “value neutral,” ancient thinkers took economic matters to be a part of human life and therefore subject to ethics. It is this ancient wisdom about economics—about “how much is enough”—that the Skidelskys seek to retrieve.

The authors then offer their ethical critique of growth. Taking an Aristotelian approach, the Skidelskys argue that, since we as humans have natures of a particular kind, there are certain things that are good for us (“basic goods”) and that are valuable for their own sake: health, security, respect, personality, harmony with nature, friendship, and leisure. The authors argue that the constant pursuit of growth is both unnecessary and detrimental to achieving these basic goods in society. For instance, the pursuit of growth has left us little time for leisure, negatively impacted our relation to nature, and—through atomization and commodification— weakened civic friendship. Therefore, they argue, the goal of economic policy should be to facilitate the good life, not to pursue growth for its own sake.

In the last section, the Skidelskys outline three broad ways in which economic policy could promote human flourishing. First, they propose the idea of a basic income, an unconditional payment by the state to all citizens. Although insufficient fully or comfortably to live on, a basic income would decrease the pressure to over-work, thereby giving people more leisure to enjoy the good life. Second, in order to reduce the pressure to consume, the state should institute a general consumption tax (as opposed to an income tax), based upon people’s yearly expenditures. Finally, to reduce advertising—which multiplies desire ad infinitum—we should implement a tax reform that would prohibit companies from writing off advertising as a business expense.

There are two conspicuous advantages to the proposal of a basic income. First, it would be a step towards alleviating a central moral problem with capitalism: the fact that workers are economically compelled to sell their labor. Unless by inheriting property, there is no way for an individual to make a living except by working for someone else. Though it may be possible for a worker to earn enough to go into business for himself later, he must first pass through a period of service to another in which he needs the employer far more than the employer needs him. With a basic income, however, workers would perhaps not be forced to work as much, placing them on a more (though not entirely) equal footing with their employers.

Second, a basic income would carry out, in part, the responsibility we have to help one another achieve the good life and the “external goods” necessary to it. Our society encourages the belief that others deserve a share of the fruits of social labor only if they work or desire to work. But this is mistaken; our responsibility to others does not depend upon what they do, but upon who they are: human beings and members of our polity.

As excellent as the idea of a basic income is, however, it raises two problems with the Skidelskys’ economic reforms. In the first place, even if their proposed policies reduce the pressure to consume and to work, the economic structure of firms—and therefore of society—remains largely the same. Although workers may, given a basic income, be freer to choose what type of work they wish to do, the workplace relationship would still be one of employer-employee; in other words, workers would still lack a full measure of self- determination. What the Skidelskys do not fully consider is the reorganization of production into worker-managed or cooperative firms. Such an economic reform not only might be more efficient, but would also give greater control over the work process to the workers themselves.

A second difficulty in their argument concerns the state. While the Skidelskys are right to seek state rather than so-called “free market” solutions to the ethical problems caused by the pursuit of growth, they do not question the concept—more precisely, the size and function—of the state itself. The Skidelskys dismiss the idea that small-scale projects, such as local co-ops and communes, are the remedies for our economic woes, on the grounds that these “will remain precarious and marginal without public backing.” But in advocating their economic policies through the “public backing” of the state, they leave the nature of the state unexamined. This is unfortunate.

While human flourishing and the cultivation of the virtues (which are strangely absent from the Skidelskys’ moral framework) plausibly require local communities for their full achievement, it is doubtful whether such communities can thrive in the midst of the bureaucratic and power- driven modern nation-state. It is perhaps unavoidable that the state should play a large role in the economy, but perhaps it should be a large role played by a smaller state. These difficulties, however, do not negate the fact that the Skidelskys have adeptly synthesized history, economics, political theory, philosophy, and even theology in a compelling critique of the relentless pursuit of growth and in their vision of a more humane economy.

David Pederson

David Pederson received an A.B. in Philosophy from Princeton University and is pursuing a Ph.D. in Philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh.