How much is enough?

In an essay adapted from their new book, How Much Is Enough? Money and the Good Life, Robert and Edward Skidelsky argue against the assumption that economic growth is always the best measure of economic health. In the developed world, they claim, the problem is not a lack of wealth, but rather the lack of a shared understanding about what wealth is for. Having lost sight of what the Skidelskys call "the good life," and no longer in agreement about what such a life would consist of, capitalist societies are left with purely quantitative measures of individual and collective success: more is always better than less, even when less is more than enough to meet our needs. In such a society, the difference between idleness and leisure also gets lost, since the only important distinction is between what makes money and what doesn't: the active is identified with the productive, and the productive with the profitable. Everything else is slacking off, or at best restful amusement.

The image of man as a congenital idler, stirred to action only by the prospect of gain, is unique to the modern age. Economists, in particular, see human beings as beasts of burden who need the stimulus of a carrot or stick to do anything at all. "To satisfy our wants to the utmost with the least effort" is how William Stanley Jevons, a pioneer of modern economic theory, defined the human problem. That was not the ancient view of things. Athens and Rome had citizens who, though economically unproductive, were active to the highest degreein politics, war, philosophy, and literature. Why not take them, and not the donkey, as our guide.

There is no end to satisfying "our wants to the utmost" unless wants are understood as needs rather than appetites.

The beginning of sanity in this matter is to think of scarcity in relation to needs, not wants. And this is how we do normally think of it. The man with three houses is not thought to be in dire straits, however urgent his desire for a fourth. "He has enough," we say, meaning "enough to meet his needs." Flagrant manifestations of insatiabilitysuch as an uncontrollable desire to collect cats or dollhousesare widely viewed as pathological, not normal. We are all, in principle, capable of limiting our wants to our needs; the problem is that a competitive, monetized economy puts us under continual pressure to want more and more. The "scarcity" discerned by economists is increasingly an artifact of this pressure. Considered in relation to our vital needs, our state is one not of scarcity but rather of extreme abundance.The material conditions of the good life already exist, at least in the affluent parts of the world, but the blind pursuit of growth puts the good life continually out of reach. Under such circumstances, the aim of policy and other forms of collective action should be to secure an economic organization that places the good things of lifehealth, respect, friendship, leisure, and so onwithin reach of all. Economic growth should be accepted as a residual, not something to be aimed at.

But human needs have to be defined in reference to the some shared understanding of the good life; they are what is necessary for us to flourish, not merely to survive. It is precisely such a shared understanding of the good life that one kind of modern liberal is suspicious of:

A liberal state, John Rawls and others have taught us to believe, embodies no positive vision but only such principles as are necessary for people of different tastes and ideals to live together in harmony. To promote, as a matter of public policy, a positive idea of the good life is by definition illiberal, perhaps even totalitarian. This view rests on a thorough misconception of liberalism. Through most of its long history, the liberal tradition was imbued with classical and Christian ideals of dignity, civility, and tolerance. ("Liberal," we should remember, originally designated what was appropriate to a free man, a usage surviving in phrases such as "liberal arts.")In the 20th century, such prototypical liberals as Keynes, Isaiah Berlin, and Lionel Trilling took it for granted that upholding civilization was among the functions of the state. It is a superficial conception of liberalism that sees it as implying neutrality among different visions of the good. In any case, neutrality is a fiction. A "neutral" state simply hands power to the guardians of capital to manipulate public taste in their own interests.

One result of such manipulation is that we have become blind to our own abundance. If we ever recognized it, we might begin to figure out how to make sure everyone benefited from it. That's why those who now seem to benefit the most from material inequality think it's in their interest to pretend there simply isn't enough to go around -- and therefore that growth, not redistribution, is the only conceivable way forward. It isn't just that the "guardians of capital" stand to gain by convincing us we need whatever can be sold; it's also that they're afraid of being asked to part with some of their wealth once the public discovers that we as a society already have what we need -- we just aren't using it very well. Within the same community, some suffer for lack of basic necessities, while others suffer from surfeit and greed. Both conditions are incompatible with the good life. Happily, the cure for the second condition is also the cure for the first. By taking only what we need for the good life and letting others have the rest, we not only help the poor; we help ourselves -- in this life, as well as the next.

Matthew Boudway is senior editor of Commonweal.

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Politics
Religion
Books
Collections