When we recently heard Fareed Zakaria discussing this book with its two authors, Robert and Edward Skidelsky, it immediately struck a chord. Here at last the real questions were asked:
Why does the economy in the Western world have to keep growing? Why do we still have to work as many hours and years as people had to when societies were far from being as affluent as we now are? Do we all have to work full time until we reach our sixties or possibly even seventies, just so that the economy can keep growing? Shouldn’t it be the other way round, that the economy should serve us and make it possible for us to live a life that fulfils our real needs?
The authors quote a nearly forgotten essay that John Maynard Keynes wrote in 1930: Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren. In this the great economist envisaged a society in which a more developed technology would lead to a much higher output of goods per hour worked, and therefore people would have to work less, may be not at all at some point, to satisfy their needs. All this within say one hundred years.
In the Western world part one of the prognosis has long since come true. Our department stores are stuffed with more products than we really need. But why are we not working less, why has insatiability become rampant? What should we aim for instead?
I must admit, after the introduction (which you can read here) I jumped right to the chapter where this question is answered: what the economy should do for us is enable us to enjoy “the good life”, free from monetary cares, live it, as Keynes suggested, “wisely and agreeably and well”.
Does working hard and accumulating money do this for us? No, the authors say. The good life can be found if seven needs of the individual are met, which turns them into “basic goods”. And most of these have little to do with money. The selection of these elementary goods is painstakingly presented: they must be universal, final, sui generis and indispensable. The choice of words is not always self-evident, but they are carefully explained. Here they are:
Health – self-evident, meaning the full functioning of the body.
Security – just as clear: “The justified expectation that … life will continue in its expected course.”
Respect – less easily defined, perhaps best as the status of being fully acknowledged as a human being, based on civil rights on the one hand, but also on personal achievement.
Personality – again more complex. “The ability to frame and execute a plan of life”, but also with an element of “spontaneity, individuality and spirit.” An essential safeguard of developing personality is private property, not the monthly income that alone would not guarantee independence.
Harmony with nature – not meant as favouring rural life but a warning against alienation from nature.
Friendship – this is the wider term, chosen to include family as well. The authors have the ancient Greek word “philia” in mind, which encompassed “all robust, affectionate relationships.” The modern buzz word “community” is rejected since it can be used in a manipulative way.
Leisure – it is “not just time off work but a special form of activity in its own right.” It is “free, non-purposive activity”. It does not mean idleness or passive consumption, it means pursuing work of your own choice. This can mean paid work, as long as you are not doing it solely for the purpose of making money but because it is what you really want to do. The authors do see that not everybody is prepared for that. “We cannot expect a society trained in the servile and mechanical uses of time to become one of free men over night. But we should not doubt that the task is in principle possible.” So the authors would want schools to also prepare people for leisure, not just for the job market.
Is this definition of “the good life” something I could accept for myself? Absolutely. Can money buy these goods? The answer the Skidelskys give is obvious. “Health and friendship lie largely in the lap of fate. Personality, respect and leisure depend partly on individual agency. Still, the state has an important and legitimate role in creating the material conditions under which these and other goods can flourish.”
Professor Robert Jacob Alexander, Baron Skidelsky
The final chapter is entitled: “Exits from the Rat Race”. It deals with the concept of basic income, different forms of taxation, reducing advertising and the pressure to consume. If we didn’t strive to constantly consume more, we wouldn’t have to work so much. How could that be organised? How can politics create the necessary framework? All this is discussed from various angles with feasible suggestions, like sharing work or taking time off.
All illusory? When I saw the various suggestions, like sharing work, putting in sabbaticals, reducing the weekly load, I realized that I had done exactly that throughout most of my professional life. As a secondary school teacher, employed by the city state of Hamburg, I could, after our first son was born, reduce the number of lessons I had to teach per week to 50%, with the same amount of reduction in pay, of course. I could take up to three years off with children under three in the house. Teachers could prepare for a sabbatical for between one and six years. If you chose the two year variety you worked one year full time, then had one year off and received 50% of your salary in both years. The six-year variety meant six years full work, then the sabbatical, all the seven years at six seventh of a full salary. You could opt for earlier retirement by having a certain percentage taken off your final pension. Many of these measures were introduced when there was a surplus of young teachers who would otherwise not have found employment. All these options of working less were and still are widely accepted, although they mean less money. But what one gains is quality of life, exactly what the Skidelskys call “the good life”.
What this book does is that it encourages normal citizens who are not trained in economic theory to think for themselves and not be intimidated by economic jargon. It points out what really matters and offers a shift of paradigm that goes far beyond the current Euro crisis, fiscal cliffs or national debts, problems that transcend every normal person's comprehension. This book aims at a different society, and it is not Utopia. It is a choice that we can opt for.
In Germany a fledgling party has already been successfully voted into local parliaments and, for the upcoming federal election, has included the following key sentence in their economic policy: “Full employment is neither suited for this day and age, nor is it socially desirable”. There you have it: the Skidelskys are not alone.
So if you still need a last-minute Christmas present, for a friend or even for yourself: get this book, read it and start a discussion!
Professor Robert Jacob Alexander, Baron Skidelsky was born on 25 April 1939 in Harbin, Manchuria. His parents were British subjects, but of Russian ancestry. His father worked for the family firm, L. S. Skidelsky, which leased the Mulin coalmine from the Chinese government. When war broke out between Britain and Japan in December 1941, he and his parents were interned first in Manchuria then Japan, but released in exchange for Japanese internees in England. From 1953 to 1958 he went to Brighton College and after that Jesus College and Nuffield College, both in Oxford. In 1970, he became an Associate Professor at the School of Advanced International Studies, John Hopkins University, and in 1978 he was appointed Professor of International Studies at the University of Warwick, where he has since remained. He is currently Andrew D. White Professor-at-Large at Cornell University.
Robert Skidelsky, the economist, is also a chess fan and a close friend of Nigel Short. To this we owe his regular visits to the London Chess Classic, where he will gladly engage in economic discussions with participants and visitors. They are among the most interesting encounters during the chess event.
At last year's Chess Classic: GM Michael Stean, Robert Skidelsky and Nigel Short
This year a very similar scene in the VIP room, with John Nunn and Nigel Short
Interestingly John Nunn had, some weeks earlier, expressed very similar views to those of the Skidelskys – without yet knowing of their book or its contents (a wry Nunn adage: "The problem with economics is that it deals with money"). Great minds think alike.
Robert Skidelsky is enchanted to meet the strongest female chess player in history
At dinner Robert signs books for Nigel Short, venture capitalist Mihaly Szalontay,
Vishy and Aruna Anand and the entire Friedel family, one book for each member.
Prof Lord Robert Skidelsky - How Much is Enough? The Economics of the Good Life
Dr Edward Skidelsky - Happiness and Economic Growth
The thesis of this book is that you cannot measure the well-being of individuals, families, groups, cities, states or nations purely on the basis of money, by looking at income, bank accounts, monetary wealth, the budget or Gross National Income. Evaluating well-being only in terms of cash, as is very often done, leads to a one-sided view, as does evaluating the success of economies mainly on the basis of growth. In their book the Skidelskys lay the foundations of a saner, more stable world, arguing that progress should be measured not by the traditional yardsticks of growth or per capita incomes, but needs to include the seven elements described above. The book is a rarity, a work of deep intelligence and ethical commitment accessible to all readers. It will be lauded, debated, cited, and criticized. It will not be ignored. If there is one book you buy in the remaining days of the year, let it be this seminal work by the great economic thinker and his philosopher son.