Tag Archives: happiness

Can’t get no satisfaction?

‘You can’t always get what you want,’ sang Mick Jagger in 1969. ‘But if you try sometimes, well you might just find, you get what you need.’ The Rolling Stones frontman isn’t mentioned in How Much is Enough, which is a shame since his lyrics encapsulate the failure to distinguish between needs and wants which is at the heart of this thoughtful assault on contemporary capitalism.

Buy How Much is Enough from WH Smith
How Much is Enough? The love of money and the case for the good life, by Edward & Robert Skidelski, Allen Lane, 2012.

Although they sound like a Scottish punk band, the Skidelskys make an unlikely pair of iconoclasts: Lord Robert, the acclaimed biographer of John Maynard Keynes, and his philosopher son, Edward. And it is from Keynes’s mistaken belief that the richer we became the less we would choose to work less that they take their cue. Keynes failed to understand, say the authors, how capitalism would continue generating endless wants which could never be satisfied. Indeed, neo-classical economics has abolished Jagger’s distinction between wants and need by subsuming both within the empty concept of ‘utility’. So we keep working longer and harder to afford more stuff which we certainly don’t need and may not even really want.

To make capitalism work for us rather than the other way round, the Skidelskys propose trying to meet our needs rather than our wants. To this end, they identify seven ‘basic goods’ which we need in order to live, in Keynes’s words, ‘wisely, agreeably and well’: health, security, respect, personal independence, leisure, friendship, and harmony with nature.

For this to work, we need to dispense with the modern Western idea that happiness is merely a subjective ‘state of mind’, which makes it worse than useless as a goal of public policy. The Skidelskys’ solution is to revive the Ancient Greek concept of happiness – eudaimonia –  as ‘a blessed or enviable condition’. Behind this lurks the idea that some modes of life are intrinsically better than others. Take friendship: who would disagree with Aristotle’s assertion that, ‘No one would choose to live without friends, even if he had the other good things’?

jagger_portraitThe Skidelskys cheerfully own up to ‘honest paternalism’, and you can hear Keynes’s echo in their suggestion that the good life is more about ‘strumming a guitar’ or ‘decorating furniture’ than ‘watching television and getting drunk’. Curiously, there is no discussion of democracy here, or how we might choose between different versions of the ‘good life’ without an Athenian-style panel of elders deciding for us.

Some of the Skidelskys’ policy prescriptions – a basic income for all citizens (working or not) and higher pay for public servants, for example – look like a dauntingly hard sell in the current environment. And it’s a measure of the capture of conservative thinking by free-market fundamentalism that ideas drawn from Greek and medieval philosophy, Christian social teaching and Edwardian patricians like Keynes are now only likely to find favour on the left.

‘Making money cannot be the permanent business of humanity, for the simple reason that there is nothing to do with money than to spend it. And we cannot just go on spending,’ the Skidelskys warn. Mick Jagger might have agreed with that in 1969. These days, I’m not so sure.

  • A version of this review was published in Public Service Magazine, Autumn 2012.

Creative catastrophizing

The last year has seen a glut of books on economics for general readers, feeding off the fears most people have about their future in the global economy. In fact, the dismal science has never been so popular – or indeed so dismal.

Catastrophe sells, so many of these books come with doom-laden titles and the sort of menacing predictions familiar from the days of the Cold War. In How the West was Lost, the Zimbabwean-born academic Dambisa Moyo predicts a grim battle between Chinese and American capitalism, from which the more muscular, state-controlled, Oriental version will emerge triumphant. The west has all but given up on saving, skills and innovation – the motors of economic prosperity – and lacks the political will to save itself. America’s only way out is unthinkable – putting up trade barriers and defaulting on its debt.

Will Hutton has always been willing to ask questions conventional economists won’t. In Them and Us: Politics, Greed and Inequality– Why We Need a Fair Society (now out in paperback) he asks if ‘fairness’ matters and, if so, why? (His answer is yes, and because unfairness is inefficient and socially destructive). And before you think, ‘leftie rant follows’, Hutton throws this at you: fairness is ‘capitalism’s indispensable value’. It is fairness that allows innovation to flourish, and innovation is the motor of capitalism (possibly the only thing on which Hutton and Moyo are likely to agree).

bernard-stieglerIf this seems a bit optimistic for the times, look to France for some gloomy abstract thinking. Philosopher Bernard Stiegler (also “director of innovation” at Paris’s Pompidou Centre, and you don’t get more avant-garde than that) has written a book that tramples all over the barriers between economics, philosophy and social psychology.Ce Qui Fait la Vie Vaut la Peine d’Etre Vécue (something like ‘What makes life worth living’) raises the alarming prospect that human beings may be losing their ‘taste for life’ itself. The ecological crisis and the failure of market economics is driving us into a ‘general depression’. Modern capitalism, Stiegler says, works by ‘creative destruction’ – the need to produce goods and services that are ever more disposable and ephemeral – which leaves human beings feeling useless and powerless, without really understanding why.

These are just three examples; there are dozens of others, offering diagnoses and prescriptions varying from fundamentalist free-market to somewhere out beyond neo-Marxist. What they have in common is a willingness to think beyond the sterile models and simplistic equations of conventional economics and tap into much richer veins of thinking. But you won’t hear any of this when the next talking head from Goldman Sachs pops up on telly to give their dry, self-interested view on the latest inflation figures.

In the 1930s, Keynes wrote that an economist should be ‘mathematician, historian, statesman and philosopher…no part of man’s nature or his institutions must be entirely outside his regard.’ Frankly, economics, has spent the last thirty years with its head up its own arse, and it’s high time it took it out and took a look around.