books growth wealth

How much is enough? By Robert and Edward Skidelsky

How much is enough? The love of money, and the case for the good life is a father and son effort – Edward is a philosophy professor, his father Robert is an economic historian and cross-bench peer in the House of Lords. The book straddles economics and philosophy effortlessly. It doesn’t answer the question of the title in a literal sense, but is rather “an argument against insatiability, against that psychological disposition which prevents us, as individuals and as societies, from saying ‘enough is enough’.”

The authors begin with Keynes’ futuristic essay on the ‘economic opportunities for our grandchildren’, which I just happen to have written about the other week in a similar vein. Keynes imagined a future where everyone’s basic needs are met, and they are able to pursue leisure and culture instead of working. Why didn’t this happen, the authors ask. Why are we still working so hard, when we already have so much?

Their theory is that as consumer society has developed, tendencies that have always been there in human nature have morphed from vices into virtues. Where it used to be frowned upon, the desire for money has become the central motivation of a whole civilization. There’s no single point when people sat down and decided it should be that way, but rather a number of philosophical shifts. Neoclassical economics is one. The liberal thought of John Rawls is another, which argued that there was no single definition of a good life, and that the state should be neutral towards its citizens’ aspirations. The consequences haven’t been all bad. Capitalism has delivered the goods in many ways, but we find ourselves in this strange situation, surrounded by affluence unimaginable to previous generations, but ill equipped to enjoy it.

The notion of the ‘good life’, is important here. Essentially, the authors argue that all through history, people have had a vision for what makes a good life – friendship, leisure, respect, and so on. Wealth was a means to that end, and you got rich so that you could buy yourself that better life. The difference now is that we no longer have an end in mind; we do not know what wealth is for. The “assumption that there is a good life, and that money is merely a means to its enjoyment, has been shared by every great civilization but our own” they suggest. “In the face of this massive agreement, it is our own devotion to accumulation as an end in itself that stands out as an anomaly, as something requiring explanation.”

That ‘massive agreement’ is no idle phrase, as the book draws from a wide range of sources, both Western and Eastern. It weaves its logic through Goethe, the book of Revelation, the Brahmasutras. Within two pages you might take in Machiavelli, Milton, Marx, and Diogenes of Sinope, who “lived in a barrel and threw away his only bowl after seeing a child drink water from his bare hands.” If you enjoy this kind of philosophical rockhopping, it’s a real joy to read, and reminds me of Margaret Atwood’s writing on debt. If you don’t, well, consider yourself warned.

In the process of critiquing acquisition without end, Skidelsky and Skidelsky have little time for the mantra of constant economic growth, but they reach their postgrowth perspective through philosophy. That’s an angle I’ve not considered much, but far as they’re concerned, this moral and ethical perspective on growth is more compelling than the usual two approaches, happiness economics and natural limits. The book dedicates a chapter to each of these, and their critique of happiness economics is the most thoughtful I’ve read, drawing on the definition and experience of happiness.

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of the chapter on the natural limits to growth. They begin by saying that the famous Limits to Growth report predicted a population and resource crisis by the end of last century, using this as a springboard to bemoan the apocalyptic undertones of the environmental movement. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve read this sort of thing, and it discredits Skidelsky and Skidelsky. The Limits to Growth model runs to 2100, not 2000, so their observation is a false one and it makes their comments sound hackneyed and secondhand. They also focus their critique around extremist green writers such as Paul Ehrlich or James Lovelock, rather than the hundreds of more moderate and considered writers in the field. Having done that, it’s not surprising that they conclude that natural limits to growth are a quasi-religious idea propagated by people uncomfortable with wealth in the first place. This is uncharacteristically weak.

“For the affluent world, growth is no longer a sensible goal of long term policy” they write. “But we regard this as an ethical truth, not as a conclusion of scientific fact.” I’d say it’s both, and books like Mark Lynas’ The God Species might set them straight on the entirely quantifiable natural limits of the carbon cycle or the nitrogen cycle. (Lynas actually draws the opposite conclusion – that the limits to growth are a scientific reality, but not an economic or ethical problem.)

But let’s put that aside, as sustainability is clearly not the authors’ area of expertise. The concluding chapters attempt to define ‘the good life’, the worthy goals of our pursuit of wealth. They narrow it down to seven things: health, security, respect, personality, harmony with nature, friendship, and leisure. This is what wealth is for, and if we lose the end goal, we may sacrifice these things in the pursuit of an empty ‘more’.

How does that perspective translate to actual policy? There are some old friends among the ideas here – limiting advertising to slow the creation of new wants, focusing on ending inequality, shorter working hours and more leisure time, the citizen’s income, localism, and ending the dominance of finance, which they describe as “in love with itself, but increasingly bereft of useful things to do.”

Whatever you think of those specific proposals, it’s not enough to shrug off the question, say Skidelsky and Skidelsky: “simply to blunder on without having a view about what wealth is for, is an indulgence rich countries can no longer afford.”

I agree, and I hope How much is enough? is widely read, because it opens up a whole new perspective on the growth question. Its ecological blindspot aside, it’s a very good book.

PS.  I was pleased to see that Ed Miliband read it this summer. A couple of years ago he read Tim Jackson’s Prosperity Without Growth too, which would be a fine partner volume to this one. I won’t hold my breath that he’s about to take the Labour party in a new postgrowth direction, but all in good time…

14 comments

  1. If one party is drawing an ethical conclusion, and the other a scientific conclusion, I suspect they are not really drawing opposite conclusions but viewing the matter from a different perspective. It’s like the lung discovering that it cannot keep all the oxygen for itself, it must be shared proportionally, and not too much for any part. If the lungs do not know it already, science will show it, in due course. But part of the system dies to the detriment of it all. But that is nonsense for the strictly scientific economist, of course. That is because he is like the lung who thinks he is a lung, but not part of a whole (humanity).

    1. I have just read (from Wikipedia), that in the 1960’s, economists decided that ‘moral hazard’ should no longer be viewed as any immoral behaviour but simply the ‘inefficiencies’ that occur as consequences! Little wonder then that there seems to be a morality blind spot in most current economic thinking, (and why we think moraltiy is just the domain of philosophers and theologians). And why some think the conclusion regarding growth, comes from science not ethics.

      1. It’s interesting that Adam Smith was a professor of moral philosophy first and an economist second. Economics is a social science, essentially commenting on human behaviour. The effort to make it into a hard science has been a long and rather futile exercise, so it’s actually quite refreshing to find people like Robert Skidelsky who are willing to look old fashioned and talk about the ethical dimension.

        1. I agree, Jeremy, although from a slightly shifted vantage point: I think economics should be developed into a hard science, but the she purpose of the economy to begin with ought to be defined on ethical grounds. Economics as an (applied) science then can employed to reach those goals that society at large agrees upon. As for Adam Smith – the more I look into it the more I feel he got many things wrong, including the idea that all “primitive cultures” lived in deep poverty and despair, which is simply not true.

          As for Paul R. Ehrlich: is he so extremist? His timing surely was (when talking about the population bomb) but his views in principle? My current in depth look at the Philippines for example is horrifying. There are many positive developments, and yet all those are offset by population growth alone. Population on this Archipelago of more than 7100 Islands grew from 16 Million a hundred years ago to over 100 Million by now. The country is now the world’s largest rice importer (used to be one of the largest exporters), and economic growth is only sustained by remittances from overseas workers. At current rates the population doubling time is in the range of 35 years. They are already at their limits with over 100 Million people on a geographically fractured and largely degraded territory less than half the size of France. It is an extremely unstable situation and my impression is that Ehrlich’s views pretty much shine through there. It looks bleak. He by the way just now published a paper with the Royal Society, and I don’t see much wrong with it: http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/280/1754/20122845

          1. The problem with economics as a hard science is that in the middle of it you have human psychology. And we have a tendency to be unpredictable and do things that aren’t in our own interests.

            Ehrlich isn’t so extreme now, but the book insists on citing The Population Bomb, which is full of over-dramatic predictions that didn’t come about. I think he was young and hasty with the book, more interested in making a big splash than the science of it, and that’s dogged him ever since. Like Malthus, it’s easy to knock his work on the basis of his forecasts, when the theories themselves are pretty common sense.

    2. Some (including me) would argue that economics is not a science in the first place. A physicist may make a thought experiment along the lines of “let us assume the Earth’s gravitational acceleration would change to 20 m/s^2” and then proceed with calculations of tides or falling objects. That scientist would not make the mistake and consider his thought experiment real. Economics is doing that. Economics effectively at one point removed the complexities of human behavior and the limits of natural resources from its equations, thus severing its connections with the real world… Science of course does not make any ethical statements whatsoever. Science is a toolbox. Ethical guidelines come from human beings.

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