06/18/2012 05:31 pm ET Updated Aug 09, 2012

How Much Is Enough?

Robert and Edward Skidelsky are the authors of the new book "How Much Is Enough? Money and the Good Life" (Other Press, $24.95)

As we were writing this book, friends of ours often asked us, half-jokingly, 'Are you going to tell us how much you think is enough?'

We found it sensible to riposte by asking, as if in the spirit of scholarly enquiry, 'How much do you think is enough?' We often got the answer 'Enough for what?' to which we replied, 'Enough to live a good life'.

This sometimes did elicit a stab at a number, though, as was to be expected, the number varied markedly according to age, circumstances, and nationality. The fact is, of course, that one can only hope to get a meaningful answer to the question from people who accept that there is such a thing as a good life, independent of their own subjective desires. The purpose of our book is to persuade the reader that such a thing -- the good life -- does exist and can be known, and that we ought to strive to live it. How much money we need to live it comes at the end of the argument, not at the beginning.

The springboard for our reflections is a little essay by John Maynard Keynes, 'Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren,' published in 1930. Over the next hundred years, Keynes speculated, the average standard of life in the Western world would rise four to eight times. Industrial processes would be largely automated, meaning that all desired goods and services would be available to us at a fraction of the effort then required. No one would need to work more than 3 hours a day, or 15 hours a week.

Keynes was not alone in thinking this way. Most economists of his day assumed that, as people became more efficient at producing the things they needed, they would devote less time to work and more to leisure. This seemed a natural assumption. After all, the rich have always been conspicuously idle. As people in general became richer, it was plausible to suppose that they would become idler too.

It hasn't tuned out quite as Keynes thought. Although incomes have risen more or less in line with his prediction, working hours have fallen much less, and may even be on the rise again, especially among the wealthy. Why is this? One powerful explanation focuses on the relational character of human wants. Many goods are desired not because they are desirable in any absolute sense but because they serve to communicate our superior wealth or taste. Economists talk about bandwagon goods (goods desired because other people have them), snob goods (goods desired because other people do not have them) and Veblen goods (goods desired because they are expensive and widely known to be expensive). An example of the last would be a diamond-encrusted mobile phone, exhibited at the 2011 Moscow Millionaires' Fair. So long as we yearn for goods like this, whose sole purpose is raise us visibly above our fellows, there's no reason to think that the thirst for wealth will ever slacken.

Keynes' did not try to disguise capitalism's viler features; he merely urged us to put up with them for the sake of a better future. 'For at least another hundred years,' he wrote, 'we must pretend to ourselves and to everyone that fair is foul and foul is fair; for foul is useful and fair is not. Avarice and usury and precaution must be our gods for a little longer still. For only they can lead us out of the tunnel of economic necessity into daylight.' Keynes understood that capitalist civilisation had, at some level of consciousness, licensed motives previously condemned as 'foul' for the sake of future reward. It had made its peace with the forces of darkness, in return for which it would secure what earlier ages could only dream of - a world beyond the toil and trouble, violence and injustice of life as it actually is.

In our book, we trace this idea of a 'Faustian bargain' -- as well call it, in honour of the famous German doctor and his Satanic sidekick -- from ancient millenarian speculation through to Adam Smith, Karl Marx and sixties guru Herbert Marcuse. Keynes and other 'Faustian' thinkers believed that the values and institutions of capitalism could be utilised in the service of the good life and then thrown away. They failed to see that capitalism has a dynamic of its own, hostile to any notion of the good life. The monster we have created is now out of our control, a Frankenstein's monster that programmes the game of progress according to its own insane logic.

The pre-modern era took a very different view of wealth and wealth-creation. Aristotle, the dominant influence on European economic thinking from the thirteenth to the seventeenth century, described the virtuous man as one who acquires just those things he needs to live agreeably and well, and then stops. To continue accumulating beyond this point is a sign of pleonexia, the insatiable grasping after more - or avaritia, 'avarice,' as Latin moralists called it. We think that some restoration of the idea of moral limits to money-making would be no bad thing.

One influential modern critique of growthmanship appeals to the concept of 'happiness.' Reported British and US happiness levels have hardly budged for the last 30 years, while real per capita GDP has risen almost continuously. It seems high-time to shift our focus from GDP to GDH -- 'Gross Domestic Happiness.' In 2010, Prime Minister David Cameron unveiled a new 'wellbeing index' to supplement the traditional macroeconomic measures. Happiness is now serious politics.

Happiness economists have the best of intentions. They are rightly alarmed by the divorce of economic growth from any humanly intelligible end; they wish to remind us of the old truth that riches exist for man, not man for riches. Unfortunately, their concept of happiness is far too crude for the purpose at hand. For the ancients and medievals, a 'happy' life was a successful and admirable one. Today, it signifies merely a life filled with pleasant states of mind. Such a life need have nothing worthy or admirable about it. It might be the product of constant drug use, or a full-frontal lobotomy. To make happiness in this sense the chief goal of government is a recipe for infantilisation -- the prospect memorably dramatised by Aldous Huxley in Brave New World. We do not want to banish the engineers of growth only to see them replaced by the engineers of bliss.

So how might go about bringing the endless escalation of wants under control? The problem has two aspects: one intellectual, the other political. The intellectual problem is to try to recover an idea of the good life - one that 'wants for nothing,' as the phrase goes. For it is only in relation to such an idea that it makes sense to talk about having enough. All great world civilisations, our own excepted, have reflected on what it means to live well. Medieval monks, Confucian mandarins and Buddhist sages elaborated ideals of life ranging from the austerely ascetic to the lusciously aesthetic. 'To cut with a sharp knife a bright green watermelon on a big scarlet plate of a summer afternoon,' wrote the Qing dynasty scholar Chin Shengt'an. 'Ah, is this not happiness?' If we could only fix our minds on such simple, perennial pleasures, and refuse to be distracted by the pursuit of novelty or positional advantage, we might learn to think of ourselves as having enough.

The political problem is one of organising our collective existence so as to make it easier for people to actually lead good lives. In the last part of our book we outline a number of proposals to this end: regulation of working hours, taxes on consumption, tighter controls on advertising, and an unconditional basic income for all adult citizens. Whatever readers may think of these particular proposals, not to try to develop a collective vision of the good life, simply to blunder on without having a view about what wealth is for, is an indulgence rich societies can no longer afford. The greatest waste now confronting us is not one of money but of human possibilities. "Once we allow ourselves to be disobedient to the test of an accountant's profit," declared Keynes in 1933, "we have begun to change our civilisation." The time for such a change is overdue.