The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 16 No. 1 (Spring 2014)

How Much is Enough? Money and the Good Life

Robert Skidelsky and Edward Skidelsky

New York: Other Press, 2012.

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 16.1 (Spring 2014). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Spring 2014

(Volume 16 | Issue 1)

T

he Skidelskys are a father-son authorial team. The elder, Robert, is a life peer in the House of Lords and an English economic historian who has written an acclaimed biography of John Maynard Keynes. The younger, Edward, is a lecturer at Exeter University and the author of a discerning intellectual biography of philosopher Ernst Cassirer. Their book is framed as an extended discussion of a brief, neglected essay by Keynes, “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren,” which was first presented in 1928 and revised and published as the Great Depression got underway in 1930.

The Skidelskys see Keynes’ essay as prophetic in its contention that capitalism, “the life of economic striving and money-making, was a transitional stage, a means to an end, the end being the good life.” They see the present as a time when the transitional stage could be left behind if our “civilization” knew what “the good life” was. First describing the historical roots of what the Skidelskys call the “Faustian bargain”—that is, the willingness to unleash “bad motives for the sake of good results”—they then set forth a substantive conception of the good life. They detail seven “basic goods” that public policy ought to be aimed at—health, security, respect, personality, harmony with nature, friendship, and leisure—as well as some of the policy means of achieving these. Along the way, they explain how they differ from two other anti-consumerist visions, one embracing happiness as the goal of public policy, the other rejecting economic growth in the name of ecological values.

The core contention of the book is that “the unending pursuit of wealth is madness.” This pursuit, the Skidelskys note, does have some intrinsic value. In particular, they claim that the attainment of leisure, which allows for activities that give “joy” (as distinguished from “fun”), ought to be one of the proper attainments of wealth. Proper leisure activities are characterized (with a nod to Immanuel Kant’s aesthetics) as “purposiveness without purpose.” By this they mean that engaging in real leisure is an activity that is good for its own sake. The authors accept that some economic growth is required to satisfy our needs. But beyond a certain level, many of our wants, especially those that involve goods primarily acquired for the status they confer on their owner, are dispensable in a political world guided by what they take to be saner public policy.

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Eric Schliesser is BOF Research Professor of Philosophy and Moral Sciences at Ghent University in Belgium. He has published widely about the history of philosophy and the philosophy of economics.

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Published three times a year by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, The Hedgehog Review offers critical reflections on contemporary culture—how we shape it, and how it shapes us.

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