“How Much is Enough?”

Here is a good warm-up for Thanksgiving weekend.

In their recent book How Much is Enough?, the Skidelskys, a British father-son team composed of an economist and a philosopher, decide to challenge one of the core tenets our society’s economic system is based off on: insatiability. Although some (although certainly not all) of us may individually recognize that there is a certain point where another dollar in our wallet won’t help us buy the-life-lived-well, the economists with whom we have entrusted the engines of productivity to all hold onto a worldview inherited from their Economics 101 course: resources are scarce, but wants are unlimited.

The Skidelskys contend that this is not only unpractical, but also unethical. It is not practical, at least for us living in the developed world, because resources are more abundant than they are scarce, even in times of recession. It is not ethical, because the logical conclusion is that since the way towards the-life-lived-well is through either wealth accumulation or economic growth, but since wants are supposedly unlimited, we are stuck on an uphill treadmill that indiscriminately combines the means and ends towards the-life-lived-well.

I had to warm-up cautiously to the Skidelskys. Economic theorizing done exclusively in the ivory tower of academia worries me a bit, since what we come to believe about economics will ultimately affect real people on the ground. But eventually I came to appreciate the subversive goal of the Skidelskys – they may spend the entire book wearing their academic regalia, but only to make some of their fellow academics squirm in discomfort.

It is an ambitious project that would be easy to nit-pick. So I will hold my fire, and focus on what the Skidelskys do well:

Getting everyone up to speed on the current situation

The Skidelskys claim that “Capitalism has achieved incomparable progress in the creation of wealth, but has left us incapable of putting that wealth to civilized use” (p.42). Why? Because for capitalism to be most effective, everything needs to be measured in dollars and cents, making money the ultimate yardstick of good and evil. Capitalism further lacks a logic of “enough”: it has no goal but more, which is great for growth but destructive to fostering contentment and leisure.

(I wish the Skidelskys took up a case-study of Sweden and the other Scandinavian nations – all countries with capitalist systems, but also the cultural concept of lagom är bäst, “enough is best.” But I promised not to nit-pick…)

The Skidelskys put together a concise and clear history of the of economic thought that got us into the current mess. They cleverly describe the 18th century economic ideologies that propose competition, greed and the pursuit of wealth as roads to utopia as “Faustian bargains.” Admirably, they include non-western voices as way to check and balance their own tradition, bringing ancient Indian and ancient Chinese economic thought into the discussion.

Deconstructing “happiness economics”

Happiness economics, which has tried to bring the yard-stick of life satisfaction as a replacement to wealth, is a well-intended but ultimately flawed endeavor, as the Skidelskys point out.

First, the Skidelskys discuss the futility of measuring happiness. What is “average” happiness? A country can double its GDP, but can it double its happiness? How about different cultural constructions of happiness?

Second, the Skidelskys suggest there is something unethical about crowning happiness as the ultimate measure of things. What if sadness, tragedy and despair have a role in our lives? What is the difference between pleasure and joy? Is there a narrative arc to the good life?

The Skidelskys also attempt a deconstruction of the environmentalist resistance to economic growth.  I feel they are not nearly as successful here, trying to take down one good point (the blind pursuit of economic growth will bankrupt our planet) in order to make room for their own points (the blind pursuit of economic growth with bankrupt our morals). Both points could conceivably coexist, but the Skidelskys are strangely hostile to a school of thought that seems to be their closest friend. (So, um, I nitpicked again. Sorry.)

Identifying “basic goods”

After uprooting reckless capitalism by its Faustian roots, and dismissing happiness economics with an “A+ for effort, but not much else,” the Skidelskys have to put forward their alternative. Instead of pro-growth or pro-happiness, the Skidelskys list seven “basic goods” worth structuring our economic system around: health, security, respect, personality, harmony with nature, friendship, and leisure.

In such a system, there still can be growth, as long as the end goal of growth is one of these seven basic goods (p. 169). There can still be happiness, as long as happiness is rooted in one of the seven basic goods (p. 120).

Envisioning non-coercive paternalism

For such economic thought to become a reality, state powers have to be use to “encourage and discourage certain kinds of behavior” that lead to the realization of the basic goods (p. 193). This, of course, is a paternalistic view of the state, a toxic word for many political ideologies.

The Skidelskys admit this, but also suggest that there is a fundamental difference between a paternalism and coercion. Paternalism makes it easier to choose the basic goods, coercion forces the basic goods by contradicting the basic good of personality. Besides, political power is inherently paternalistic, but through corruption becomes coercive. (For those who see the end goal of politics as a hands-off sort of “freedom,” this section is potentially a very difficult read.)

The Skidelskys suggest some “non-coercive paternalistic” policies that promote the basic goods while providing individuals “exits from the rat race” – many of which are already exist. For example, policies which “reduce the pressure to consume” and “reduce advertising” – through well-designed taxes and through laws such as those which prohibit advertising during children’s television programming. They also think a “basic income” – a bonus paid to every citizen each year, no questions asked, such as what exists in Alaska, help to promote the basic goods.

What do you think? Is there a problem with our current economic paradigms? Do you agree with the Skidelskys list of basic goods? Do you think non-coercive paternalism is possible?

I usually don’t foreshadow blog posts, but I do want to say that I’m working on a post that came from a realization I had reading this book alongside Barbara Brown Taylor’s An Altar in the World. I think these two books, read together, point to something we do not often think about. So, yeah, that blog post is coming.

“How Much is Enough?”

4 thoughts on ““How Much is Enough?”

  1. Great recommendation. Sounds like the Skidelskys have been reading Wendell Berry a little bit? I don’t think anyone could argue that there aren’t problems with our economic paradigms. Not the least of which is exactly the contention between scarcity, wants, means and ends that you have described. Whilst getting my MBA I learned that the stated goal of any business or any economy is “sustainable” growth… 3-5% would be great. Because 3-5% is “sustainable.” What I did not learn is why 3-5% is sustainable, or for how long said growth is sustainable. The goal is not in fact the “sustainability” of the economy, the goal is the growth. And so, in all the most acceptable thinking of the day businesses and economies never asks the question that you have posed here “how much is enough?” We have a basic inability to work for sustainability… because we have no vision of what that is. Our vision is solely fixated on growth… and we rest our heads at night by being conned into a vision of “measured” “slow” or “sustainable” growth. This vision keeps us captive to anyone who has a great idea about how to achieve growth, it keeps the economy captive to all those who would do anything to grow, and it keeps, as you have suggested, the metrics of “good” captive to monetary value.

    I think this sense of vision (or lack there of) has a bearing on the author’s notions of non-coercive paternalism. If the constituency of a state had a vision of the good that was not captive to the dollar, not captive to growth… then the action of the state’s government wouldn’t have to be “paternalistic” or “coercive” in achieving some sort of “sustainable” vision it could simply be representative.

    As it is… our politicians more or less represent us. We have sold our notion of the good to the economy to the dollar, and so the economy runs our political system. We can piss and moan about how politicians sell out to the big corporations or the million dollar donors… But in the end, the truth is, that is exactly what Americans have asked them to do. Because what we really want is “more” and the economy is the only entity that has the ability to give us that, and so we have made ourselves slaves to it. We have done this both knowingly and unknowingly. Until we recover a viable notion of sustainable good we will always be under the heel of the all-powerful economy.

    I’m reminded of a Wendell Berry quote that I recently hung on my bulletin board in my office.

    “We have made our false economy a false god, and it has made blasphemy of the truth. So I have met the economy in the road, and am expected to yield it right of way. But I will not get over. My reason is that I am a man, and have a better right to the ground than the economy. The economy is no god for me, for I have had too close a look at its wheels. I have seen it at work int the strip mines and coal camps of Kentucky, and I know it has no moral limits.” (from “Discipline and Hope.”)

    So the question for me is not “how do we get the state to teach the economy about sustainability” (crude paraphrase of what you have describe as non-coercive paternalism) but instead “how do we as a society recover a viable/sustainable notion of good (or enough.)” Then we can deal with fixing the way the state coerces or parents or not our notion of the good.

    Of course I’m not naive enough to think that its quite that simple. So I would probably support legislation aimed at shifting a societies notion of “good” from “more” to “enough.” But still… I think the only real way to arrive at enough is from the grass roots… and being as I am, a pastor. I’m convinced that the only way this actually will ever happen in our world is when the King returns to establish his Kingdom. Though I am convinced that we may be able to taste the and advocate for the goodness of this coming Kingdom now, and for the truth of its economy that is based not in scarcity but abundance, not in dollars but in righteousness.

    1. Noah – Yes, yes, yes!

      For my part, I kept the faith element out of my review of the book, not because those wheels weren’t turning (trust me, they were) but because I wanted to be fair and concise in communicating the Skidelskys’ secular message. I agree in the importance of the grassroots, I agree that the full goodness of the Kingdom will not be achieved by human muscle. I “recommend” this book (and even then, more as food for thought than infallible doctrine) as a prescription for those who are entrusted with / speak truth to this sort of power.

      Thanks for your feedback. I really appreciate the conversation.

  2. “Do you think non-coercive paternalism is possible?” Dovetailing with Noah’s comments, my response is ‘Not on this earth’. The sin thing will always get in the way of what government can achieve. If God had trouble governing His chosen people in the Old Testament, why would it be any easier for us?

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