In search of the good life

The thing that so often annoys me with books by academics in the social sciences is that they’re really good at telling you what has happened and why it has happened, but shy away from saying what we should actually be doing about it. They remain aloof, remote from the problems that they discuss, when what I really want them to do is leap in and get their hands dirty.

Skidelsky

So it came as a welcome change to stumble across ‘How much is enough?: The love of money and the case for the good life’, by father and son team Robert (a political economist) and Edward (a philosopher) Skidelsky, which explores how and why we’ve fallen into the thrall of increasing economic wealth and then – to my delight –  explains how the authors think we could fix the problem.

Described in the introduction as ‘an argument against insatiability’, the book charts how we have used technology not to free up our own time (as Keynes had anticipated), but to work even more and even harder. And why have we followed this path? Simply put, because we want more. And more. And more. We have, say the Skidelskys, entered into a kind of Faustian pact, in which we suffer toil, inequality and destruction today, in the hope that tomorrow we will finally have enough. But, it seems, the lure of just that little bit extra is intoxicating. There can never be enough.

This begs the question: enough for what? So opens up the main topic of the book, which is the idea of the ‘good life’. And this is where the interesting stuff begins. (If you’re a free market capitalist or a cultural relativist, you might want to stop reading here, because the rest of the book – and this review – is really going to irritate you.) Because while we all have our ideas of what the good life looks like, the authors suggest that not all of our ideas are necessarily equally valid.

Most western governments do not like this idea. Instead, they adopt the attitude that we should all be free to do our thing and to live our lives with the minimum of interruption. As if all our different ideas of what constitutes the good life will somehow add up to a happy and contented world. But, as anyone who has ever watched the news will know, this isn’t how things happen in real life. As former diplomat Alastair Crooke has noted:

There is no God-given nature implanted in human beings, whereby, controlled only by pursuit of their own personal welfare, their unforced personal choices would combine together to produce an orderly and harmonious society.

The authors provide evidence from a variety of sources to show what most of us secretly suspected all along: increasing wealth is not making us happier. It is also destroying the environment and the planet on which we live. But more than that, say the authors, endless growth is senseless. Our current and unending pursuit of wealth is simply wrong. The long term goal of economic policy, they argue, should “henceforth not be growth, but the structuring of our collective existence so as to facilitate the good life.”

So what is this good life? Well, it’s a life that “is desirable, or worthy of desire, not just one that is widely desired”. And the authors do a reasonable job of identifying the various ‘basic goods’ that make up this life. Things like good health, friendship and harmony with nature. They then set out a series of social policies that could help to “reverse the onslaught of insatiability” and to promote the availability of the basic goods for all, including a universal basic income, taxation on consumption rather than earnings, and stricter controls over advertising.

This all means, though, that the state can no longer remain neutral between different moral beliefs and different ideas of the good life. And while this kind of state paternalism was commonplace in centuries past, it seems to fly in the face of modern liberal democracy. Except that it doesn’t, argue the Skidelskys. The ideas that we will need are already embedded deeply in our culture and in our morality. We just need the political courage to restore them to their rightful place.

This is a thoughtful book that will be enjoyed by anyone with an interest in political philosophy or economics. It is well researched, well written and well referenced. But it does, though, read rather more like a selection of essays than a cohesive, well-argued book. As if the authors had been saving up material for some time, waiting for a convenient ‘hook’ on which to hang it.

And while the Skidelskys have clearly striven to bridge the divide between academia and the general public, the book’s occasional heavy prose and extensive detours into classical political economy mean that it risks disappearing into the abyss. (This may be why the book is currently less popular than it probably should be.) These grumbles aside, though, this book asks some important questions. And to the authors’ credit, they’ve also tried hard to give us some answers.

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