“How Much is Enough?” by Robert & Edward Skidelsky

Skidelsky_How_Much_Is_EnoughISBN 978-1-846-14448-6. “How Much is Enough? The Love of Money, and the Case for the Good Life” by Robert Skidelsky and Edward Skidelsky was published by Allen Lane (Penguin Group) in 2012. Robert and Edward are a father & son team; Robert is Professor of Political Economy whilst Edward is a lecturer in Philosophy. This work combines their interests and starts with Robert’s three volume biography of John Maynard Keynes. Their argument follows a torturous alternative path to a conclusion that we can all agree with: the pursuit of money, as an end in itself, is destructive. The Skidelskys propose a more paternalistic (less utilitarian) approach to economic management that helps us all focus on our quality of living. In their words “the good life”.

In 1930 Keynes penned an essay called “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren”. He postulated that the wealth of the nations would expand for the next one hundred years to the point that all people would be pretty happy with their lot. At that point the number of hours we needed to work would be minimised and our leisure time maximised. Economic growth would thus have fulfilled its purpose and then could stop. We would live in a form of “bliss” in a steady state economy whose activities were only necessary to maintain the status quo. It was Keyne’s intention

“… to persuade [his audience] that capitalism, too, was a utopian project – a more effective utopian project than communism, because it was the only efficient means to the abundance which would make possible a good life for all.”

We are twenty years short of this Keynesian end-game but it is clear already that not everything is going to plan. The Skidelskys suggest we have lost our way. Their book

“…aims to revive the old idea of economics as a moral science; a science of human beings in communities, not of interacting robots.”

However all is not as it seems. You can cherry-pick this book and easily turn it into a manifesto for the Transition Towns Movement. What is interesting is that the arguments presented here for the end of economic growth are NOT the ones most of us are used to hearing. Read the passage above again. “How Much is Enough?” asserts a moral prerogative not an objective one. (The word “moral” was emphasised in the original text.) As such the Skidelskys turn their back on the enlightenment project. They do not need ‘reason’ to pursue the end of growth, indeed they quite reject rational explanations as to why there has to be an end:

“Growth, say critics, is not only failing to make us happier; it is also environmentally disastrous. Both claims may well be true, but they fail to capture our deeper objection to economic growth, which is that it is senseless. To found our case against growth on the fact that it is damaging to happiness or the environment is to invite our opponents to show that it is not in fact damaging in these ways – an invitation they have been quick to take up.”

Note the use of the word “fact” here. Although it “may well be true” that growth is materially destructive to our futures and our current well-being these “facts” only invite arguments from entrenched economic interests. The service that the Skidelskys are attempting is the circumvention of traditional rationales for the end of growth. They displace all need for evidence, statistics or economics and replace the “facts” with philosophy. This is not a book to quote Heinberg, Hopkins, Tainter, Greer, Campbell, et al. Instead its pages are littered with the wisdom of John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx, Herbert Marcuse, Adam Smith and Aristotle.

Keynes was not entirely wrong in his phophecy. Wealth was created more or less exactly as he expected and working hours have generally fallen in the 80 years since his essay. However, what has not happened, or at least there is no sign of it so far, is the idea that we will ever have “enough”. We are simply “insatiable”. Although we can only eat so much food and breath so much air the world is full of man-made manufactured wants. They never stop. The Skidelskys give a quick run down as to the reasons why we are never satisfied. They are familiar arguments and you can probably read a better account in “Affluenza” by Oliver James or “The Spirit Level” by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. Dispensing with this topic quite quickly the authors move onto debate the merits of the Capitalist Utopian experiment by likening it to a Faustian Bargain. Capitalism is the Devil and we have bargained with it for the good life. We sold our soul for short term expediency. Capitalism (growth economics) has given us the good times but we don’t know it is time to stop so we are riding the good times straight to hell.

We are not sure this is quite an apt metaphor but the Skidelskys seem to like it and devote an entire chapter to our pact with Capitalism. In essence we have forgotten that Capitalism is a means to and end, not an end in itself. We have lost the meaning of “needs” versus “wants”

“…all rest on the assumption that some ways of life are intrinsically superior to others. Modern economics has dispensed with this assumption.”

Economics may have dispensed with it but many in Transition (the “petite bourgeois” as Greg Sharzer termed us in “No Local“) are now making that assumption. This is a mistake for Transitioners as it embraces a set of values that can never by universalised hence only serve to alienate the mainstream. However, here we are, the authors of this book would prefer a return to “superior values” in the belief that certain values can be universal. In doing so they dismiss modern economics as

“…not just academic discipline. It is the theology of our age, the language that all interests, high and low, must speak if they are to win a respectful hearing in the courts of power.”

Zing. It is worth noting that neither authors are Economists however their words closely echo those of Steve Keen’s “Debunking Economics” – Steve being a genuine Economist. So they are certainly on to something there. However Keen was talking about Economic orthodoxy, ie, neo-classical economics. The Skidelsky’s make no differentiation as such preferring only to describe the power of the Economics “theology” in describing how the world works to people with power. As such it largely serves the interest of power and few in the mainstream prefer to speak truth unto power. Power isn’t listening. Self-interest is all that matters and all that is preserved. Hence other messages do not get through.

It might be our first assumption that the Skidelsky’s work was thus doomed to obscurity. However, to my astonishment they do seem to have breached a few walls. It received favourable reviews in the serious broadsheets, The Economist and (apparently) “Church Times”. Rowan Williams’ praise for the book graces the front cover (even if his description conjures to mind a Stilton Ploughman’s Lunch). I digress… Now you can put in place all kinds of pet theories at this point. Why does the “establishment” so thoroughly dismiss the head on assault of the New Economics Foundation, the Transition Movement and the Post-Carbon Institute? Is it simply that these organisations use highly persuasive reason to form their arguments? We assume that, since this reasoning does not fit with the ideology of the power-system-elite then their reason must be rejected.

So why has “How Much is Enough?” received so much praise within the hallowed halls of power? Is it that their argument doesn’t use a full head-on battering ram of facts? Why do the corridors-of-power sit up and listen when a Philosopher quotes Aristotle yet yawn if a Scientist quotes the 3rd Law of Thermodynamics? Is it a reflection of the social-science & “modern arts” training of those in power? It is a conundrum and an awkward one for those of us idealistic enough to believe that the power of logic is on our side. Maybe we should have just tried a whole lot of mumbo jumbo instead?

You might think that it doesn’t matter but you only need to turn to the chapter entitled “The Mirage of Happiness” to find words such as this:

“To go from the pursuit of growth to the pursuit of happiness is to turn from one false idol to another. Our proper goals, as individuals and as citizens, is not just to be happy but to have a reason to be happy.”

That entire section of the book sets up well-being economics to be a straw-man called “happiness economics” which they proceed to tear apart. All this despite mentioning:

“In 1974, the economist Richard Easterlin published a famous paper, ‘Does Economic Growth Improve the Human Lot?’ The answer, he concluded after a thorough survey of happiness and GNP in a number of countries across the world, is probably ‘no’. Happiness economics has since mushroomed, but the central finding of Easterlin’s paper, the so-called Easterlin paradox, remains largely uncontested.”

“Uncontested” yet the Skidelskys go on to contest it – yet their case is a weak one. The straw man they erect is around the word “happiness” itself which they then fixate upon. They neglect an obvious point: Easterlin was describing the ‘improvement of the “human lot” not “happiness”. Hence endless pages of philosophical navel-gazing about the meaning of the word “happiness” in different cultures and languages gets us nowhere. Few economists seriously use the word “happiness” this way. It is a layman’s term. The professionals use the term “well-being” or “quality of life” to describe what they are trying to measure. This largely renders the Skidelsky argument moot. For a better study of this are the reader should be pointed to “The Spirit Level” by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett and “Mis-measuring our lives” by Joseph Stiglitz.

Why is the author’s use of a straw man here pertinent? Well because they go on to perform the same trick again when tackling environmentalism.

“We respect and share the religious feeling at the heart of environmentalism.”

The chapter title is actually entitled “Limits to Growth: Natural or Moral?” however they do not really address the known facts about the limits to growth. For THESE authors the facts do not matter because mere “facts” can be contested. Hence there is no mention of the geological and economic certainty of peak oil. The straw man they construct is of “religious” environmentalists pursuing a creed of climate change destruction.

We have our sympathies of course and we have written often of the pointless pursuit of confirmation bias that so many deep greens indulge themselves in. Islamic Fundamentalists work themselves up into a self-destructive fervour with extremist propaganda whilst the modern climate change activist goes into battle after watching “An Inconvenient Truth”. Polar bears are a great motivation if you need a pep-talk but they don’t get to the truth about what is really going on. We respect so many of the professionals who know what they are talking about but so few grass-roots activists do. But to classify all environmentalism as being faith-based is to misrepresent to diversity of beliefs there-in.

Skidelskys only see “deep greens” and “shallow greens”. They do not see any other type of person. Everybody who cares is an environmentalist and tarred with the same brush. This is hardly very discriminating. But it gets worse. A LOT worse. For those of a nervous disposition please look away now. For what follows in this book is nothing short of a set of clichéd polemics against the environmentalist movement. It is quite shameful. The chapter kicks off with Thomas Malthus (why do they always choose Malthus?) before moving on rapidly to the “Population Bomb” and the 1972 bestseller “Limits to Growth” which they describe as ‘prophecies‘ that were

“…predictably alarmist…”

None-the-less, since these “prophecies” had to do with events in the first half of the 21st Century it is hard to see how the Skidelskys can know this. Unless, of course, they have not read the book or have a crystal ball. Their arguments largely ignore the facts and embrace the popular mythology: technology can solve all ills so why are we worried? They are gambling on the predictions being wrong. Hence any evidence or facts are not relevant:

“We agree that, for the affluent world, growth is no longer a sensible goal of long-term policy. But we regard this as an ethical truth, not as a conclusion of scientific fact. [..] An ethical ideal has been smuggled in under the cloak of a pragmatic necessity, a familiar ruse in our utilitarian political culture.”

By which they mean our political system largely responds to “facts” and not ethics. However this system is ALSO unresponsive to facts that do not support their world-view. It is a cultural battle, not one of “facts”. But this book just gets better and better. Having once dug themselves a hole they just keep digging. Be prepared to shudder

“The term ‘climate change denier’ – modelled on ‘Holocaust denier’ and with similar overtones – is often applied to those who dispute the scientific consensus on global warming. We are not deniers.”

Somehow this rings as hollow as a skinhead assuring you that some of his best friends of black but…

“Climatology is a young field, in which much remains uncertain and disputed.”

We beg to differ. It is a complex field where much is very certain. This is to confuse the scientific method of enquiry with the term ‘doubt’. Research continues in order to discover even greater knowledge, not because we are clueless. Not only are the authors not Economists but they are not Scientists either and they treat the science as they treat other “facts” – as an irrelevance. This, for them, after all, is an ethical argument. Facts have no place. The Skidelskys rank climate change as just another form of “potential disaster” (like a war or plague) that does not demand the scale of effort and resources that the “climate radicals” are asking for. These authors see only religious fervour, not science:

“Infusing a good deal of environmentalism literature is a love of the hair shirt.”

So they keep on digging, and digging. There is no stopping these guys as they apply one stereotype after another to the environmentalist movement. It is a text book effort and they are to be applauded. However it does nothing for their credibility on the matter. To top it all off they then drag in the Nazis:

“…early environmentalists harboured other, more radical tendencies, for which the enemy was technology itself…”

…and they are, of course, referring to those lovable German philosophers Ludwig Klages and Martin Heidegger:

“Klages, an anti-Semite, and Heidegger, an unrepentant Nazi, are among the unacknowledged forefathers of the modern Green movement.”

Voila, we’re all Nazis. It seems to us that anyone who brings up the Nazis in an argument are the first to lose it. And the Skidelskys lose this one big time. Unfortunate. It takes a near breathtaking twist of ideology for the authors to go from bad-mouthing people-who-care-about-the-future, to suggesting that one element of the Skidelskys’ mythical “good life” is (wait for it, drum roll please…)

“…harmony with nature…”

By which they apparently mean “gardening”. How quaint. How on earth they manage to go from a criticism of the Green movement, as being religious, romantic and unscientific, to arguing that all our lives would be better for a spot of weeding is mind-boggling. But it is a philosophical stunt they pull off flawlessly. Ta-da! However when they go on to describe their “good life” they end up describing the romantic beliefs of so many in the Green movement (who, a few pages back, they had written-off as Nazis):

“What would an environmentalism remodelled along these lines – ‘good-life environmentalism’ , we can call it – look like in practice? Very different from current environmentalism, both deep and shallow. It would promote ‘green’ ways of life not for nature’s sake or for future generations’ sake but for our sake.”

This could be so close a description of the modern Transition Movement if it was not for their detailed description of such a lifestyle; it sounds quite close to the romantic ideal of the landed gentry – a spot of fishing, maybe some big game-hunting with a little time left over for some Badger-baiting in the afternoon. Apart from their appeals to grow and eat local food it is a vision of bucolic bliss that remains a fantasy for millions huddled in cities. All this and not one mention of any genuine physical limits to economic growth. So, what of THESE inconvenient facts?

“An environmental movement reformed along these lines would no longer be dependent on scientific claims that are both uncertain and irrelevant. Natural limits of growth, even if they do exist, will come into play far too late to meet the requirements of the good life.”

It is probably worth framing that little phrase. So having slaughtered their straw-man image of the environmental movement they urge us to forget about all that science nonsense and go and grow some flowers.

So, what is the full list of the “elements of the good life”? Economic activity (according to these authors) should be geared towards the maximisation of our:

  1. Health
  2. Security
  3. Respect
  4. Personality
  5. Harmony with Nature
  6. Friendships
  7. Leisure

…and do you know? There is not one of these aspirations that we could really truly dispute. It is their method of reaching this list that we object to. It is as if they deliberately set out to really upset everyone, who believes in this list, in order to sell this list to the people in power who (culturally) would not believe in this list.

To pursue our ‘harmony with nature’ we are implored to visit

“…farmers’ markets, organic food cooperatives and the like.”

Oooo… Yummy. And maybe some Morris dancing to boot? It is easy to be dismissive. It is only a brief impression of the tragedy of our situation. Do you really have to forget any appeal to reason, and embrace only ethics, if you are to discover the fundamental truths of our times? Somehow this seems a little unhelpful. But our judgement is maybe too harsh. Maybe it simply doesn’t matter what road was taken to these conclusions. They are the right conclusions found in the vacuum of an ivory tower packed to the roof with the works of classical philosophers and theologians. We applaud their conclusion, but not their methodology. And, do you know, if it works in speaking truth unto power who are we to question the methods?

The book wraps up with a section on “exits from the rat race” that attempts to offer policy guidance for politicians. It seems sad that this is how they conclude the book: a list of things Government have to do to us to make us have a good life. What about the things we should be doing ourselves? A missed opportunity. So, what is their recipe, their conclusion?

“Our leaders can offer no more than a continuation of economic growth for ever and ever; and this despite the plentiful evidence that the capitalist system in our part of the world is entering its degenerative phase. The chief sign of this is the dominance of finance, in love with itself but increasingly bereft of useful things to do.”

We agree with the sentiment and their closing words do mention finite resources at several points. In their own final analysis the veil of conceit seems to slip – just occasionally. Do father and son Skidelsky really believe this planet is finite? I think they do, but they dare not make this too explicit lest it be taken as too close to an inconvenient truth. Somehow it is comforting that there is some air of reality under-pinning this work. Philosophy & ethics can only get you some of the way.

It all goes out with a whimper… The Skidelskys’ conclusions about policy do descend into truisms and platitudes. Few of us could really disagree with less adverts on TV or higher taxes on conspicuous consumption – but these seem like ineffectual instruments – like pushing on a piece of string to change the direction of a juggernaut. Maybe we should form our own opinions…

Thus I leave you with one final comment from the book that rings true:

“What would an economic organisation geared to realising the basic goods look like? It would have to produce enough goods and services to satisfy everyone’s basic needs and reasonable standards of comfort. It would furthermore have to do so with a big reduction in the amount of necessary work, so as to free up time for leisure, understood as self-directed activity. It would have to ensure less unequal distribution of wealth and income, not just to diminish the incentive to work, but to improve the social bases of health, personality, respect and friendship. Finally a society which aims to realise the basic goods of friendship and harmony with nature would put more emphasis on localism, less on centralisation and globalisation.”

Amen to that.

About post-carbon-man

A passionate advocate of a peaceful transition to a sustainable political-economy, Mark hails from a working class farming background. Today he is a Company Director and Chairman of the Low Carbon Chilterns Co-operative. Whilst at University (Engineering Masters) he was active in Conservative Student politics but has had no affiliation since. He has travelled widely on business covering the USA, Europe, Middle East and Central Asian Republics. In 2007 Mark founded Post-Carbon-Living and a year later co-founded Transition Town High Wycombe. He lives with is wife & daughter in a home they retrofitted to be carbon-neutral. Today he blogs about surviving politics on a shrinking planet and is passionate in his rejection of Nationalism.

Comments

“How Much is Enough?” by Robert & Edward Skidelsky — 1 Comment

  1. Pingback: “The Big Flatline” by Jeff Rubin | Post-Carbon-Living