The authors use an essay written by Keynes in 1930, "Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren," as a point of departure.
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.
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.
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.
Humans are capable of more than they are currently given credit for. However, some reeducation of the population would be required.
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.
The authors make the analogy to a classical tale.
A similar sentiment to that of Keynes can be found in Adam Smith’s writings from which this is quoted:
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.