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How much is enough? (A Comment)

This is a rather late comment on an important book I read earlier in the year : 'How Much is Enough?: Money and the Good Life' by the brothers Robert and Edward Skidelsky. I say late because there's a long gap between when I read it and now, so my thoughts may be loose in places. For the same reason, this is a comment rather than a review, though the difference is subjective. 

The book is exactly as its title suggests. It is offered as a contribution to rethinking what we want out of life: what money is for and what is meant by ‘the good life’. To make their point, the authors reanimate certain philosophical and ethical ideas which they believe "have long been out of favour but which are by no means extinct".

They believe that people are essentially ethical but find it difficult to express their choices meaningfully because they are so "institutionalised by their occupations, as prisoners are by their incarceration, that they can no longer imagine life outside their accustomed habitats". The book is an attempt to help them discover one. It is intended to persuade the reader that we should focus on pursuing the good or fruitful life rather focusing on pursuing money or well..

The authors surprisingly do a great job in poking holes into the current focus on increasing incomes. The pursuit of wealth has become the cornerstone of Western economic policy without asking society asking why wealth needs to be overriding object! What I found quite fascinating is evidence they pull together to show that societies have not always been driven by the goal of accumulating more and more! Much of the pursuit of the economic growth as a policy goal goes back to Adam Smith.

According to Skildesky and Skildesky, Adam Smith overthrew “the classical scheme of virtues and vices” in exchange for releasing of motives that promoted economic growth - namely greed. Acquisitiveness was licensed on condition it served the social good. The social good was lost as a collective achievement. It became a result of individuals pursuing their self-interest in markets. The logic of contract was sundered from the logic of reciprocity, which in most human cultures and societies has been an integral part of the economy. As economics developed, it became increasingly difficult to distinguish wants from needs.

The pursuit of incomes as an end is problematic because making money cannot actually be an end in itself ultimately – at least for anyone not suffering from acute mental disorder. To say that my purpose in life is to make more and more money is like saying that my aim in eating is to get fatter and fatter. The authors believe that "what is true of individuals is also true of societies". Making money cannot be the permanent business of humanity, for the simple reason that there is nothing to do with money except spend it. And we cannot just go on spending. There will come a point when we will be satiated or disgusted or both.

Skildesky and Skildesky go on to argue that the objective requirements of a good and comfortable life are finite in quantity, but wants, being purely psychic, are infinitely expandable, as to both quantity and quality. This means that economic growth has no natural tendency to stop. If it comes to a halt, it will be because people choose not to want more than they need. But how will people stop? This means that society ultimately is headed on the wrong path thanks to Adam Smith.

Despite these strong argument the book is not without obvious weaknesses. Three particularly stood out. First, it is largely anthropocentric. The authors start with an important observation:
Most modern political theory starts from the consideration of what is just, or fair, in the abstract, and proceeds to derive from this ‘just’ social arrangements. Our approach is different. We start with the individual and his needs, from which we try to build up a picture of the common good The question is: why do people who ‘have everything’ always seem to want more? There are two approaches to answering this question, the first of which starts with the nature of human wants in isolation, and the second which considers them in relation to those of others. The opposition between the two is admittedly largely artificial. Wants are individual; but the way they get expressed, the way they are encouraged or suppressed, is social. Which explanatory variable the investigator chooses to emphasise depends largely on whether he is interested in establishing the facts of individual psychology or whether, taking these facts as given, he tries to work out their consequences for social behaviour.
The question is certainly important. However, the two suggested approaches to answering the questions are essentially one approach under one umbrella called "anthropocentric". They start the explanation with man. The real alternative is the "theocentric" or "Christocentric" explanation, which starts with God or Christ at the centre of the human predicament. It is surprising that a book on ethics would forget the analytical alternative of theocentric framework.

Secondly, the book does not ultimately ground its concern effectively. The big question one as you read through the book is : why should it matter that money won't buy me happiness? The authors answer to this question is perplexing:
Life has no goal beyond its own perfection; to sacrifice this perfection to some distant object – to revolution, say, or the success of the corporate brand – is foolish or worse. But this is not a licence for self-indulgence....The good life is not simply one of satisfied desire; it indicates the proper goal of desire. Desire is to be cultivated, directed to the truly desirable. Moral education is an education of the sentiments.
Needless to say that hardly answers the question! The inadequacy in this area necessarily means that any alternatives they propose to pursuing incomes would be weak. But even if someone accept that we should abandon the pursuit of growth and focus on the good life there will be disagreement on what constitutes the "good life".  

This brings us to the third problem : the book does not adequately ground its solution.  The authors propose concept of the good life based on ancient philosophies and what they regard as "common traits" found in civilisations. But those things themselves are to be taken as given and cannot be grounded on anything. Someone else can come up with their own list of what constitutes the good life. Who is to say which is better? And then we have the problem that within that list trade-offs must be made. But how does one make trade offs? What is the objective standard? And does that then not make that very standard a goal we should aim for?

There are also some basic errors stemming from poor understanding of Christianity. For example, they say that “the Bible tells us that man was condemned to work in painful expiation of his disobedience to God.” That is clearly wrong. The Bible does not present work as a function of the fall. Work was there in the beginning. Adam was a gardener before he fell from grace. That is just one of many errors littered in the book.

As a work of economics the book will disappoint many because it is quite scathing of economics. As a work of philosophy it comes far short with dealing with the big questions. But it is still helpful contribution and well worth the read! I certainly enjoyed it! It certainly has some great quotables!

Copyright © Chola Mukanga 2013


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