Tuesday, June 19, 2012

How Much is Enough? A very important Skidelsky book

This looks as if is going to be a very significant book for my interests. Robert Skidelsky, the famous and brilliant biographer of Keynes, and his son (I think) have a new book out today, How Much is Enough?: Money and the Good Life.

There are some strong similarities with what I'm doing on this blog, but also some major differences.

The Skidelskys say in an article about their the book in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

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 life—health, respect, friendship, leisure, and so on—within reach of all. Economic growth should be accepted as a residual, not something to be aimed at.

Over time, such a shift is bound to affect our attitude toward economics. To maximize the efficient use of our time will become less and less important; and therefore "scientific" economics, as it has developed since Robbins, will be demoted from its position as the queen of the social sciences. It can bring us to the threshold of plenty, but must then retire from its oversight of our lives. This is what Keynes had in mind when he looked forward to the day when economists would become as useful as dentists. He always chose his words carefully: It was as dentists, not doctors, that humanity would come to need economists; at the margins of life, not as a continuous, much less controlling, presence.

They have the same starting point as I did - Keynes' essay "Economic Possibilities for our Grandchilidren". They complain about the current state of economics. And they are argue for more of an emphasis on the Good Life, rather than procedural liberalism. I strongly agree with that. I think a more tangible vision of the Good Life is essential, and I think we've run out of room in liberalism. We need to talk about purposes and ends again, as I've been arguing. We need a more Aristotelian and less utilitarian view.

I'm clearly going to have to read the whole book. But at least from the essay, there are also some important differences between this and what I say. They stick much closer to Keynes original essay, unsurprisingly, and appear to see the issue largely as a choice to emphasize more leisure and less growth. Indeed, it appears to be anti-growth. It is a matter of having less wants, of having a more restrictive view of what we need.

It sounds more like a 1970s environmentalist view at first hearing, a 'small is beautiful' orientation.

I think they are asking precisely the right question. But I don't think they have quite the right answer. I will come back to this in much more detail when I read the whole thing.


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