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How Much is Enough?

The Love of Money, and the Case for the Good Life

Robert Skidelsky and Edward Skidelsky

(London Times article)

For the past few years, John Maynard Keynes's biographer Robert Skidelsky has been busy broadcasting the folly, as he sees it, of the government's austerity and demanding that it switches instead to a growth agenda. Yet now, in the company of his son Edward, Lord Skidelsky has produced How Much is Enough? in which it is argued that we have collectively been enslaved by a false and immoral doctrine of economic growth for its own sake and that governments should instead concentrate on inculcating 'the good life'.

Skidelsky Sr would doubtless say that getting out of the recession is the primary duty of the government; but if his and his son are right, that we in the developed world already have 'more than enough', why should we worry about the present absence of economic growth? Surely it would be better to lecture the public on how to make do with less money and instead cultivate higher thoughts.

This, perhaps, is what Aristotle would have argued; the Skidelskys' idea of the good life is knowingly derived from the notion of Eudaimonia, as developed by the Ancient Greek. This is often confused with the notion of happiness, and the authors rightly stamp on that. What they and their Hellenistic antecedent mean is something much more admirable: a life well lived. This is closer to virtue than pure happiness, although by including in their notion of the good life such 'essentials' as security, respect and health, the authors are slipping in concepts that do not involve good conduct: this is to some extent the province of the welfare state, of which they are almost unconditional admirers.

They are surely right in their lacerating attack on the so-called happiness agenda, now fashionable in government with its absurd 'general happiness index'. Not only is the way happiness measured hopelessly approximate; its advocates talk as if happiness were the sole purpose of our existence. If that were the case we would have become extinct as a species a long time ago. The self-conscious search for happiness is futile: and if it were the be-all and end-all, then we should all be given drugs to fool us into thinking that everything in life is wonderful - not so far removed from current health policy, come to think of it.

I am less impressed by Skidelsky and Son sermonising to the effect that we as a society are, uniquely in history, completely tyrannised by acquisitiveness. Are the authors? Are their friends? Are their colleagues? While neither of them is religious, they pay homage to Catholic teaching on the wickedness of unchecked commerce, repeatedly attack 'the love of money for itself' and observe: 'To sacrifice health, love and leisure to a mere bundle of paper - what could be sillier than that?'

Well, if money were just a mere bundle of paper, they would, of course, be right; but the point is that money is interchangeable with a great deal of what comprises the good life, as the Skidelskys themselves define it. It buys security; it buys good health care; it definitely buys respect. Now, the authors are probably right that an individual can get quite enough of those 'essentials' without needing to become a multi-millionaire; but the other point is that we have children and grandchildren and we want to provide for them into the distant future, as well. In that sense, the desire to make a lot of money can actually be ­connected to real love.

It is true that many children of the super-rich are damaged by access to money without effort; but the authors' solution of a kind of escalating consumer tax would have its own perverse consequences. While they might be offended by the idea of Vat on a Bentley being the same as that on a Nissan Micra, they would do well to pay a trip to the Bentley factory in Crewe and ask the thousands of skilled craftsmen there whether their work is pointless. Likewise, they are appalled by the thought of people employed as 'chauffeurs, gardeners, nannies, trainers, waiters and so on'; they see them as miserably 'compelled to work long hours' in socially useless endeavour, and believe that it would be better for them and ­society as a whole if they were otherwise employed in collectively financed services - the NHS, for example.

Yes, then we really would be doing our best to limit all that pointless economic growth - and freedom too, come to that.

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