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Anthony de Jasay

Enough Folly is Enough

Anthony de Jasay*

Amateur historians, and even some professional ones, seem to believe that there is such a thing as a theory of history which lifts our sights above the kaleidoscope of events and helps us recognise vast and uniform movements that are to events as tides are to choppy whitecaps. When such movements are looked at in detail, they often turn out to be neither uniform, nor going one way, nor due to a dominant cause. Their uniformity is a subjective impression in the eye of the beholder. They nonetheless remain as parts of the folklore.

The foremost biographer of John Maynard Keynes, Robert (now Lord) Skidelsky and his son Edward, in a recent article in the Financial Times headed "Enough is Enough",1 seem to accept the theory that the economic history of the West takes the form of three vast waves, or distinct eras of development. Starting with production, followed by consumption and ending in abundance.

So far, the authors do no particular harm—it is done in their subsequent argument—although the three waves they cite are largely imaginary. Production, by which they mean a high share of investment in total output, has sometimes preceded consumption, but occasionally rather followed it. Consumption today is high by historical standards, but even in the prosperous West about one-fifth of the population lives below the official poverty line and has only just started to consume in the sense its critics give to that word. Above all, abundance notoriously lacks a standard meaning. What strikes me as your abundance is mere adequacy of comfort and security to you. Moreover, even these subjective ideas of abundance shifts widely with leaps and bounds from one generation to the next and one society to the other. The consumption habits of today's blue-collar family would have looked wildly extravagant before World War I. Today's top decile income-receivers do look to be living in abundance in everybody's eyes except their own. Moreover, contrary to the three-waves theory of economic history, there is no noticeable rise in preferences for leisure over work; in fact, higher income continues to stimulate the willingness to work, and the successful and the well-to-do are as often as not "workaholics".

Be all this as it may, the Skidelskys feel authorised to conclude that we have reached a state of abundance where only advertising and the other "usual suspects" drive us to ever higher consumption. They declare that "enough is enough". There is, as opposed to abundance, such a thing as the good life where consumption is not excessive and leisure better appreciated.

If people were bright enough to realise that the good life is better and happiness lies that way, would they not change their working and consuming habits? They could obviously not do it wholly and all at once, but there should be a noticeable migration from what the authors sum up as the "treadmill" towards a life of less work, more leisure and subdued habits of consumption. No such migration is discernible.

At this point, folly is let loose. People manifestly do not know what makes them happy, and they must be led to the good life. There should be a strict limit on the hours people are allowed to work. This would not only move them nearer to the good life, but would also deal with the scourge of unemployment. Government should guarantee full employment (though only for the permitted number of hours) and should also guarantee a basic income to everyone, whether he worked the permitted number of hours or not. If some people chose not to work at all, that would be all to the good because there would be less output of the merchandise we do not want people to have anyway. Consumption should be taxed at 75 per cent, which seems to mean that people are driven to invest rather than consume—a strange objective, given that the greater production the investment would bring about would presumably be unwanted. In fairness, we must allow that the good life these hair-raising measures would be aimed to produce would be better than life in today's North Korea, though perhaps not all that much.

"Enough Is Enough" is impregnated with the ideology that was fashionable a quarter-century ago, and reflects its ideas. It is anti-work, anti-industry, and believes in a vague notion labeled the "good life" which has little to do with the satisfaction of material wants. It is unimpressed by the plain fact that even in the prosperous West, hundreds of millions strive fairly hard to earn more and satisfy more fully their material wants; advertising leads them by the nose and obscures their view of the good life. The authors would keep jobs open for anyone who wanted to work, but are even kinder to the beachcomber who does not, but he would still get the basic income everyone is entitled to—a social achievement that used to raise much enthusiasm among the soft Left academia of the latter part of the last century, though it has fallen into disuse more recently. Mercifully, the article invokes neither market socialism nor environmentalism, but even without these two ingredients, enough folly is enough.

 

For more on the topics in this column, check out the EconTalk podcasts Brink Lindsey on the Age of Abundance and Nicholas Wapshott on Keynes and Hayek.

What makes this attempt of making out-of-fashion ideas fashionable again so untimely and incongruous is the kind of future we seem to be facing. It looks likely that whether or not we recognise the good life, in the foreseeable future we will have to work rather harder and consume a little less than we have expected to do until quite recently. There are two main reasons for that. One is that even without special generosity to the beachcomber, the entitlements of the welfare state have grown to cost more than we were willing to pay for, and the cumulative shortfall has been loaded onto the backs of future taxpayers until no more could safely be loaded. In particular, the spectacular lengthening of life expectancy was making the charge of future pensions a crippling one. The other claim upon our capacity to work harder is the future cost of dealing with such contingencies as a more capricious climate, a rising sea level and the switch from cheaper sources of energy such as nuclear and hydrocarbons, to dear ones like windmills and solar panels. None of this may turn out to be as catastrophic as it sounds, but the sum of it all must inevitably require more effort and make the prospect of a beachcomber Nirvana recede in the distance of adolescent imagination.

To call for making work purely optional and prohibiting it beyond a strict limited number of hours at this precise juncture of our history is the last thing a responsible thinking man should do. It is sheer raving folly, and of this folly, enough is enough.


Footnotes
1.

The article is a summary of their recently published book. Robert Skidelsky and Edward Skidelsky, How Much is Enough? Money and the good life. Other Press, 2012.


* Anthony de Jasay is an Anglo-Hungarian economist living in France. He is the author, a.o., of The State (Oxford, 1985), Social Contract, Free Ride (Oxford 1989) and Against Politics (London,1997). His latest book, Justice and Its Surroundings, was published by Liberty Fund in the summer of 2002.

The State is also available online on this website.

For more articles by Anthony de Jasay, see the Archive.
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