‘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.
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’?
The 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.