Posts Tagged ‘Robert Skidelsky’

Robert & Edward Skidelsky: How Much Is Enough?

February 1, 2014

9780241953891A serious read, here, on a topic which exercises my mind a lot: how do we try and make a more sensible and fairer world? Though I have to admit, it feels largely academic now, as I’m hardly likely to get to live an a better, fairer world now, whereas I felt rather more radical and even revolutionary in my younger years.

The Skidelskys’ detailed review of economists and economic history leads to a summary of how we are all now stuck and embedded in a capitalist society from which there seems to be no escape. Adam Smith once described capitalism as “wrapping up selfishness in impartiality“, which I think is an excellent summary. I was introduced to the concept of the ‘stationary state’, which I’d not come across before, the idea being that development and wealth reaches a point at which we decide to stop, rather than go further, and instead focus on different things, and the Skidelskys explore what thinkers through the ages have meant by a ‘good life’. As public life has been moved out of the sphere of morality, there is no longer any distinction between needs and wants, between necessities and luxuries, no clear idea of what constitutes ‘enough’, leading to the disappearance of the idea of avarice, which was the subject of much moral stricture in the past. The key period seems to have been the Thatcher/Reagan years, when the restraints on individual greed were cast aside.

When I was much younger, economists wrote about how the working week was going to be reduced drastically as technology increasingly made our lives easier, and we would have so much more time for leisure; this hasn’t happened, and people seem to have to work harder than ever before. Meanwhile, leisure activities are made increasingly expensive as we are persuaded we need so many expensive gadgets and so much kit in order to pursue even the simplest activity, such as walking in the countryside. Thus, profit can be made from those at leisure, just as much as from those working…

The key word in the book, as it has been for me for a long while, is ‘enough’. Modern capitalism convinces us that there never can be enough: this is a twentieth century development. Our material wants, apparently, “know no natural bounds”, and the concept ‘enough’ has no application to money, if you think about it, as opposed to actual goods.

For me, the central point is that currently everything is totally focused on individual choice and individual freedom, forgetting that we are by nature a social species: individual autonomy should be merely one good among all the others, rather than the sole determinant.

There is a very interesting and thought-provoking chapter on environmentalism, which has me questioning some long-held beliefs, but when the authors come to discussing the issue of happiness, I think they are chasing the wrong hare, and really believe that we need to examine the question of contentment instead; I don’t think the difference is merely semantic.

When it comes to suggestions for what should actually be done, the book is at its thinnest: there are some ideas, including the notion of taxing consumption rather than income, which bears scrutiny. What needs to be done as a matter of urgency, it seems to me, is to address the question of democratic deficit: the idea that people have given up on politics and politicians because these are seen as having no power to effect change, given that business and corporations rule the world and dictate to governments.

In the end, the book is a provocative and stimulating read, which will probably be sidelined and ignored.

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