Less, Please

Capitalism & the Good Life

Is capitalism an enemy of the good life? Marxists and other radicals think so. Toward the end of How Much Is Enough?, Robert and Edward Skidelsky (an economist father and his philosopher son) quote one such thinker:

"Working men have been surrendered, isolated and helpless, to the hard-heartedness of employers and the greed of unchecked competition…so that a small number of very rich men have been able to lay upon the teeming masses of the laboring poor a yoke little better than that of slavery."

Readers of Commonweal will be more likely than most to recognize the firebrand cited as Leo XIII in Rerum novarum.

The Skidelskys’ own rhetoric is usually more restrained. The sober line of thought that underlies their engaging, informative, and stimulating book goes roughly as follows. Under capitalism, businesses sell us goods and service that are essential for living well, and most of us get the money to buy these things by working for businesses or, less often, profiting from investments in them. We need capitalism because no other economic system can produce sufficient goods to meet our essential material needs such as food, shelter, clothes, and medical care. But these goods are not enough. A good life mainly depends on intangibles such as love, friendship, beauty, and virtue—things capitalism cannot produce and money cannot buy. Given a sufficient minimum of material goods, the good life does not depend on the world of commerce.

Nonetheless, for most of us, work takes up the bulk of our time and energy, leaving comparatively little for living a good life. Some see their work itself as a pursuit of beauty, truth, or virtue. But most find what they do valuable primarily as a means of earning money to buy material necessities. And capitalist society itself insists that a good life requires much more than a minimum of material goods. A truly good life, it urges, requires fine food, a large and well-furnished home, stylish clothing, and a steady diet of diverting and enriching experiences derived from sports, culture, and travel—all of which are expensive.

We all agree that there’s a limit beyond which more material goods would make little difference to the goodness of our lives. But almost all of us think we are considerably below that limit. In general, then, capitalism works against the good life from two directions. It requires us to engage in work that makes little contribution to our living well, beyond supplying our material necessities, and it urges us to believe, falsely, that a good life is mainly a matter of accumulating material possessions. The Skidelskys sum it up this way: “The irony is that…now that we have achieved abundance [in advanced capitalist countries], the habits bred into us by capitalism have left us incapable of enjoying it properly.”

Their view of capitalism is critical rather than revolutionary. They decry its tendency to sacrifice the human good to the goods of the market, but think we can curb this tendency and harness capitalism’s productive power for our pursuit of the good life. For them, the core problem with capitalism is “economic insatiability”—the intrinsic drive for increasing production (and therefore profits) without limit. The limitless demand for more can even lead, as we have recently seen, to economic catastrophe. More important, capitalism is morally deficient because its drivers are the vices of “greed and acquisitiveness,” which pile up “goods” that take us away from the good life.

The insatiability of capitalism exploits the corresponding insatiability of individual desires. No matter how much I possess, I find myself desiring more than I have. As I become rich enough to satisfy all my old desires, I develop new ones. Moreover, beyond a certain level of wealth, I begin to desire the best of everything, where the “best” (rare wines, exclusive resorts, the paintings of Old Masters) are in such limited supply that hardly anyone can afford them. And in addition to our spontaneous individual desires, we develop other desires simply because there are things others have that we don’t. Capitalism’s endless need to sell more and more is met by our need to buy more and more.

The Skidelskys argue that this destructive spiral is not inevitable. It has arisen only because we have moved away from a properly human ideal of a good life. Their positive project draws on the traditions of premodern thought for a viable contemporary account of what makes for a good life. Their discussion, perceptive if schematic, produces a plausible list of seven “basic goods”: health, security, respect, personal freedom (which they refer to, somewhat oddly, as “personality”), harmony with nature, friendship, and leisure (not idleness but freedom from wage-labor for work that is satisfying in itself). Their list has the distinct merit of allowing for the wide range of current disagreement on moral questions such as sexuality and personal rights. The authors also propose, with appropriate tentativeness, a variety of measures to curb capitalism’s “insatiability.” These include a basic wage (or personal endowment) for everyone, consumption taxes to curb excessive consumption, and severe restrictions on advertising.

 

This positive project has, of course, no point unless we accept the basic thesis that capitalism is a threat to a good life, and some of the Skidelskys’ most crucial pages try to defuse two major objections to this claim. One objection comes from utilitarian thinkers, the other from liberal political theorists. I will assess the Skidelskys’ position by reflecting on these two objections.

The first objection centers on a concept many readers will have found oddly absent from our discussion so far: happiness. Most modern people agree with utilitarian moral theorists that happiness is what everyone desires—and should desire—most. The Skidelskys would have no problem with this view if “happiness” were, like Aristotle’s eudaimonia, merely a synonym for living a good life. But nowadays happiness is seen as a matter of subjective states of satisfaction, not objectively good achievements. The point of utilitarian morality is to maximize subjective satisfaction for everyone: “the greatest happiness for the greatest number.” To do this, we need to find out what makes people happy and then supply them with whatever that is.

Economists and psychologists step forward for the first task, deploying “happiness surveys” to determine how various factors (health, wealth, sex, families, sports, reading, television, etc.) affect happiness. Once we know what we need to be happy, capitalist enterprises are ready to deliver the goods. To achieve their goal of maximizing profit, businesses must provide as many consumers as possible with as much satisfaction as they can. The capitalist is the merchant of happiness.

The Skidelskys are deeply skeptical of happiness science. They note that one of its most robust results is the “Easterlin paradox” (named for the economist Richard Easterlin, who formulated it in 1974). The paradox is that, in industrially advanced countries, major improvements in living standards have no long-term effect on happiness. This, the Skidelskys say, leads to a destructive dilemma. If the paradox is correct, then efforts to bring about improvements in living standards are futile. If it is not correct, then our best methods for discovering what makes people happy are inadequate. In either case, the utilitarian project of maximizing happiness is stymied.

This is an intriguing line of argument, but at best it undermines only the global project of producing happiness by altering the entire economic climate. It may still be possible to make numerous local improvements through actions focused on specific situations. In any case, the Skidelskys have a deeper critique of the happiness project: that the “supreme good” of humankind cannot be merely a succession of enjoyable psychological states. “We cannot think that all our suffering and labor has as its end something as trivial as a buzz or a tingle.”

Although the Skidelskys don’t mention him, Robert Nozick made the same point in Anarchy, State, and Utopia with his thought experiment of the Experience Machine. Suppose neuroscientists develop a machine that would allow you to have any subjective experiences you like—a great romantic love, writing a brilliant novel, saving your nation from destruction. You could even program an entire life filled with the most enjoyable experiences possible. But plugging into such a machine would not give you a good life, because you would never have actually done anything; you would have spent your days sitting in a laboratory enjoying a succession of feelings. The Skidelskys describe such illusory satisfactions as “the mirage of happiness.” “If happiness is a mere private sensation, with no intrinsic connection to living well…why not admit up front that our concern is with the good life—and let happiness look after itself?”

Their critique, however, succeeds against only the naïve claim that a good life consists merely of a succession of felicific fizzes. They agree that pleasurable feelings produced by objective achievements contribute to the good life, referring, for example, to the “glad apprehension…that my daughter has got into university, that my country has been liberated.” But then why not admit that subjective pleasure in its own right is one of the essential components of a good life? Imagine the inverse of Nozick’s Experience Machine: a device that does not interfere with my achieving great things in the real world but deactivates the pleasure centers of the brain so that I never enjoy anything I do. The result would be a far cry from anything we would regard as a good life. Nor is it enough to allow only the “glad apprehension” that something objectively good has occurred. Enjoying the taste of food helps make for a good life, even if I don’t also feel satisfaction at having partaken of healthy nourishment.

The Skidelskys have at best shown that pleasurable feelings cannot be all there is to a good life, but pleasure may still have a major role; it may even deserve a place on their list of what makes for such a life. If this is so—and common sense along with most philosophy and psychology supports the idea—our account of the good life cannot discount the pleasures provided by the capitalist system of production.

 

But I presume the Skidelskys could accept these points as friendly amendments. There remains the second objection, which the Skidelskys themselves recognize as “the last, and deepest, objection to our project.” This is the claim that their view rejects the fundamental insight of liberalism put forward by John Rawls, Amartya Sen, and Martha Nussbaum, among others. Here is the Skidelskys own deft statement of the objection:

A liberal state…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.

Their brief initial response to this objection is that it “rests on a thorough misconception of liberalism,” which, throughout most of its history, has been “imbued with classical and Christian ideals of dignity, civility, and tolerance.” They also cite, from the twentieth century, such “prototypical liberals as Keynes, Isaiah Berlin, and Lionel Trilling,” who “took it for granted that upholding civilization was among the functions of the state.” They note that Rawls in particular allows for a category of “primary goods,” including “civic and political liberties, income and wealth, access to public office and ‘the social bases of respect.’” These are necessary conditions for, as Rawls puts it, “forming a rational plan of life” and so must be desired by all rational agents, regardless of what basic goods they hope to achieve by carrying out their life plan.  (Rawls presents his basic goods as resources everyone should have. Sen and Nussbaum maintain that beyond Rawls’s resources, people also need the capabilities to make use of them.)

The Skidelskys rightly point out that contemporary liberals insist on primary goods rather than basic goods because they see autonomy—the right of people to choose their own conception of the good life—as an overarching value. Basic goods specify the content of a good life; the primary goods merely tell us what is needed to choose and work for any conception of a good life. The liberal emphasis on autonomy restricts government to promoting primary goods, while remaining neutral regarding basic goods and the various conceptions of the good life they specify.

The Skidelskys cite an example from Nussbaum that nicely focuses the difference between them. “A person who has opportunities for play,” she says, “can always choose a workaholic life”—her point being that, as long as this choice is free and does not harm others, the state has no reason to oppose it. Such opposition would, in fact, be a paternalistic interference with personal autonomy. The Skidelskys disagree, arguing that “if the workaholic life is an impoverished one, as most people who have thought about the matter agree it is, then its adoption over finer lives, whether freely chosen or not, is surely something to worry us.” As to the charge of paternalism, they point out that all Western nations have laws limiting the use of drugs, pornography, and alcohol, and use taxation as an incentive to promote or discourage behaviors such as home ownership and energy conservation.

This is not a convincing response. For one thing, the fact that we deplore a behavior is not a reason for violating autonomy to discourage it. For another, allowing a paternalistic approach to some evils is consistent with refusing to put the power of the state behind a comprehensive view of the human good. (Also, as the Skidelskys note, an entirely rigorous liberalism would discourage only behavior that it sees as dangerous to others.) In any case, the Skidelskys agree that, precisely because “the good life is by any reasonable definition an autonomous or self-determined one, there is only so much that the state, as a coercive body, can do to promote it.”

For a deeper grasp of what’s at stake in the liberal objection, we need to return to the Skidelskys’ starting point: the relation of capitalism to the good life. As proponents of a free society, they agree that in the end individuals must make their own choices about how to pursue a good life. They are also unwilling to reject capitalism as the engine of our economic system.  The capitalist system claims to be the servant of free choice, producing whatever consumers desire, to the extent that they desire it. But the claim is disingenuous. The goal of capitalist enterprises is to maximize profit, and they are willing—and often well equipped—to form consumer desires and public policy to achieve this goal. Advertising, public relations, and lobbying are their most effective weapons.

How can we maintain capitalism as our means of economic production and yet not allow it to determine our conception of the good life? The Skidelskys’ approach derives from Keynes’s 1930 essay “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren,” where he predicted that by 2030 the capitalist system would be able to meet all our material needs with the average employee working only about fifteen hours a week. This, he thought, would allow ample leisure time for people to pursue the good life. Keynes was right about the productive power of capitalism but wrong about the decrease in work hours, which have fallen only 20 percent since 1930. Why did Keynes go wrong about the balance of work and leisure? Because, the Skidelskys say, “a free-market economy both gives employers the power to dictate hours and terms of work and inflames our innate tendency to competitive, status-driven consumption.”

In response, they propose their anti-insatiability conception of a good life and, as we have seen, suggest various legislative measures—primarily a guaranteed basic income that does not require employment (to make it easier for people to work less), as well as consumption taxes and strong restrictions on advertising (to reduce excessive consumption). But in a democracy such a legislative approach requires the support of most citizens, and that would be available only if the Skidelskys’ goal were already achieved. The essential liberal objection to the Skidelskys is that their proposals are utopian, given a population that overwhelmingly subscribes to the insatiability ethos of capitalism. The only people who would support their reforms are the small minority who have already renounced this ethos.

 

Let me suggest an alternative approach, one that is consistent with both the Skidelskys’ appeal to traditional values and modern liberalism’s emphasis on autonomy: a return to the weakened but still viable ideal of a liberal education.

We find enormous dissatisfaction with our educational system but there is still considerable respect for the idea that schooling should provide not so much vocational training as liberal learning. A liberal education forms citizens who have a broad understanding of the possibilities of human life as well as a critical ability to make informed choices among these possibilities. Such education will not necessarily inculcate the Skidelskys’—or any other—specific vision of the good life. But it will develop self-determining agents who can see through the blandishments of the market and insist that it provide what they have independently decided they need in order to lead a good life.

We cannot control the decisions of such agents, nor should we. They are free not only in the metaphysical sense of controlling their actions but also in the cultural sense of grasping, to some significant extent, the range of options available to them in their historical context. This latter freedom derives from access to our cultural history’s enduring and ever-increasing legacy of literary, philosophical, political, religious, and scientific achievements. These achievements underlie the specific institutions and practices that define a person’s world, but they also support radical critiques and alternatives to that world. Culture contains the seeds of revolution.

Here I am appealing to the same intellectual and moral heritage the Skidelskys draw on to formulate their conception of a good life. But they make the utopian (ultimately Platonic) mistake of thinking that we can transform our world by legislating values from above. Rather, the transformation must come from below, forged by the very people it is meant to benefit. The liberal education I advocate is not that of old-world hereditary elites, bringing their inherited wisdom to the masses. It is inspired by the new-world ideal of an education equally open to everyone, limited only by one’s ability and persistence. There is a risk that free citizens educated in this way will not arrive at the truth we have in mind. They may, free and informed, choose the material illusions of capitalism. But, in a democracy, an ideal of the good life has no force unless the people’s will sustains it. Liberally educated consumers—and voters—are our only hope of subordinating capitalism to a humane vision of the good life.

Published in the 2013-01-11 issue: 

Gary Gutting is emeritus John A. O’Brien Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame.  His most recent book is Talking God: Philosophers on Belief (Norton).

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