Title: How Much is Enough: Money and the Good Life (2012)
Authors: Robert and Edward Skidelsky
Publisher: Other Press, New York
This book is not about health, although it does touch on health in that our measurements of general health are intertwined with well-being and happiness. That is one justification for squeezing it into this series of book reviews. The real reason I included this book is because the authors challenge our current (economic) thinking; questioning our goals and the prevailing wisdom that guides current practice. In other words, they are skeptical.
The authors are sceptical about economists (who isn’t?) and environmentalists alike. They clearly know their topic and provide a very thought provoking hypothesis of what it is to live the good life, and its disconnect from material gain. They argue that while some material things can help us live the good life, we should not aim to achieve material wealth for its own sake.
The historical perspectives are interesting, such as Virginia Wolff’s and John Maynard Keynes’ ideas of the good life: to have a room of one’s own, and 500 pounds per year (about $US 66,000 today), respectively. But then again, Keynes also predicted that working hours would fall as productivity increased. Nobody, it appears, overestimated our desire to accumulate more wealth than we reasonably need to live a ‘good life’.
For the health readers, ‘health’ is one of the basic goods, but they only touch on the topics of interest to me: medicalization, obsession with longevity, and attempts to improve on ‘good health’. The other basic goods they discuss are security, respect, personality (autonomy), harmony with nature, friendship and leisure (‘self-directed activity’, not just time off work). Their discussion on the basic goods required for a good life is sound, but the revelation is that these basic goods are the good life - they are the end, they are what we live for.
Their argument is not essentially anti-growth, but it relegates growth (or economic activity) to something that happens, that may have some utility, not something that should be our goal – a lesson that cannot be stressed to often to politicians and the public that vote for them.
The pursuit of growth for growth’s sake does not correlate with happiness, nor does it correlate well with employment. I became suspicious of the possible fallacy of this mindset only recently when I was informed by my government that people should be spending more in order to ‘buy our way out’ of our current difficulties. Don’t get me wrong – I am a good little consumer. I couldn’t function without my smartphone and my laptop, but I don’t need two of them. It ended up that they were worried that they might not be re-elected if the economy didn’t grow. They were right.
The final chapter, offering solutions, is the weakest. They suggest some major changes, such as a basic income for all, banning non-informative advertising, and taxing people on their expenditure, not their income. But the proposed solutions would need implementing on a large (at least national) scale making them both hard to implement and less reliant on changing individual attitudes, which is their stated aim. Finally, they suggest that such changes cannot take place without the support of religions. Given the decreasing role of religion in the societies that are doing the over-consuming, I am not sure that they are correct.
The authors’ message is a little more complicated than I have explained (or can explain), but it is a positive message, an important factor when trying to change people’s thinking and behaviour. It is also one that is hard to argue with, not least because it is an ethical and moral argument, rather than a scientific one.
Their points resonate, like economic growth being an “end without an end”, and that “consumption has become the great placebo of modern society”. But what resonates most with me is the idea of questioning a prevailing wisdom (one that is based on little more than biased expert opinion), and refocussing our attention on a more appropriate and sustainable goal. The health debate could do with this kind of thinking.