Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Capitalism vs. The Good Life: The Faustian Bargain

Robert Skidelsky and Edward Skidelsky have written an interesting book exploring the interactions between capitalism, society, and human nature. They chose to title it How Much Is Enough?; Money and the good life. The argument is made that society should have used the wealth created by economic growth to satisfy its material needs and then transition to a mode in which the goal of greater wealth would be replaced by the goal of greater "leisure." The term leisure does not connote inactivity. Rather, the authors define leisure as the time necessary to pursue "the good life." The claim is made that greater leisure had been the goal of societies before the advent of modern capitalism.

The authors use an essay written by Keynes in 1930, "Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren," as a point of departure.

"Its thesis is very simple. As technological progress made possible an increase in the output of goods per hour worked, people would have to work less and less to satisfy their needs, until in the end they would have to work hardly at all. Then Keynes wrote, ‘for the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem—how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.’ He thought this condition would be reached in about a hundred years’ time—that is by 2030."

The authors concede that such a notion likely seems quaint to modern ears, but they argue that a discussion of what the uses of our wealth should be and of what "the good life" should consist of is long overdue.

"Making money cannot be an end in itself—at least for anyone not suffering from acute mental disorder. To say that my purpose in life is to make more and more money is like saying my aim in eating is to get fatter and fatter."

The authors take the reader on a rather extensive tour of classical thinking in civilizations throughout the world to convince one that no society viewed the accumulation of wealth as a worthy goal in itself. Wealth was to be of benefit to society and the higher goal was to attain "the good life." The precise definition of what that was varied from society to society.

The authors provide this description of leisure and how it would lead to the good life.

"Leisure, in the true, now almost forgotten sense of the word, is activity without extrinsic end, ‘purposiveness without purpose’ as Kant put it."

Scientists, sculptors, musicians, teachers are provided as examples of people who would be using their leisure to pursue some goal based on the enjoyment of the pursuit rather than any monetary reward. Simpler people would have simpler pursuits available to them: learning a new language, a hobby, reading, writing, gardening....the list is long.

Some readers might be dubious about today’s ‘couch potatoes’ making good use of any increase in leisure. The authors address that concern.

"The image of man as a congenital idler, stirred to action only by the prospect of gain, is unique to the modern age. Economists, in particular, see human beings as beasts of burden who need the stimulus of carrot or stick to do anything at all."

Humans are capable of more than they are currently given credit for. However, some reeducation of the population would be required.

"Athens and Rome had citizens who, though economically unproductive, were active to the highest degree—in politics, war, philosophy and literature. Why not take them and not the donkey as our guide? Of course, Athenian and Roman citizens were schooled from an early age in the wise use of leisure. Our project implies a similar educational effort. We cannot expect a society trained in the servile and mechanical uses of time to become one of free men overnight. But we should not doubt that the task is in principle possible."

Capitalism was originally viewed as a servant of society. Its capability to create wealth was to bring about the means by which a better life for all would be attained. It was recognized that embracing capitalism would mean embracing the heretofore repugnant attributes of avarice and selfishness, but it was thought that the good produced would outweigh the bad. In any event, it was assumed that increased wealth would eventually dampen the power of greed.

"Keynes understood that capitalist civilization had, at some level of consciousness, undertaken to license motives previously condemned as ‘foul’ for the sake of future reward. It had struck a bargain 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."

The authors make the analogy to a classical tale.

"We have called this bargain ‘Faustian’ in honor of the famous doctor who sold his soul to the Devil in return for knowledge, pleasure and power."

A similar sentiment to that of Keynes can be found in Adam Smith’s writings from which this is quoted:

"[Though the rich] mean only their own conveniency, though the sole end which they propose....be the gratification of their own vain and insatiable desires, they divide with the poor the produce of all their improvements. They are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants, and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interests of society."

Free market capitalists love to refer to Smith’s "invisible hand," but they never manage to recall that it was supposed to produce equality of wealth and be of benefit to society. Given that capitalism seems determined to produce the exact opposite to the result Smith expected, and in keeping with the authors’ analogy, perhaps the "invisible hand" is nothing more than the meddling of that fallen angel.

What Keynes, Smith, and others hadn’t anticipated was that when "needs" are satisfied, humans will continue to pursue "wants." There is a limit to needs, but wants are unbounded. This human characteristic seems to be inflamed by the income inequality that capitalism produces. How can one ever have enough if others have so much more?

Capitalism has produced wealth sufficient, if it were distributed more equally, to satisfy everyone’s needs. Society could have evolved to a state in which leisure has increased and people have more time to pursue their version of the good life. Instead we have evolved to a state where we feel the need to work ever harder to keep up, and where our wants can never be satisfied.

The authors provide an apt summary.

"In the language of myth, Western civilization has made its peace with the Devil, in return for which it has been granted hitherto unimaginable resources of knowledge, power and pleasure....The irony is, however, that now that we have at last achieved abundance, the habits bred into us by capitalism have left us incapable of enjoying it properly. The Devil, it seems, has claimed his reward."

No comments:

Post a Comment

Lets Talk Books And Politics - Blogged