H.L. Mencken once said that a rich man is anyone who earns more than his wife’s sister’s husband. The anthropologist David Graeber takes a slightly different view. When I interviewed him about his wonderful book Bullshit Jobs, he explained that, rather like the Laffer curve, there is an optimal amount of wealth for anyone to have: if you have too little wealth, you spend all your time worrying about money. If, on the other hand, you have too much wealth, you spend all your time worrying about money.
I’d always noticed a similar middle ground with cars. You want a car that’s nice enough not to fret about whether it will start; equally you don’t want your car to be so perfect that you worry about parking on the street. (My colleague Mike Hughes suggested that there is a market opportunity for car-makers here. He suggested introducing the Range Rover Vogue V8 SCE, the SCE standing for ‘Supermarket Carpark Edition’. Otherwise brand new, it would be delivered with a dent to the rear wing and some pre-scuffing to the offside alloy wheels, so you’d never worry about it all that much.)
We never sufficiently consider that there may be a trade-off between wealth and freedom. It is always assumed that more wealth brings more choice, and for the majority of history this was probably true. But sometimes an increase in collective wealth comes at the expense of choice. Because it carries with it the inescapable obligation to compete.
When women entered the workforce, it brought new earning power to the typical household. But it also cost the household 40 hours of discretionary time every week. For people with a newly installed washing machine, an interesting job and no kids, this was an inarguable gain. Except that in time house prices — and expectations — adapted to this new-found earning power, so it became difficult to run a home on one salary. The freedom to devote one partner’s weekdays to childcare had disappeared. There is now no easy way of getting these 40 hours back.
Similarly, student loans reduce the freedom of people not to go to university. Thirty years ago you could apply for a job and explain you couldn’t afford higher education. Now, when anyone ‘can’ go to university, a degree has become essential for admission to the jobs market. Costlier still, before you even go to university, you now need to spend a year bumming around Asia or Latin America just to look interesting enough for anyone to sleep with you. In my day you could pass yourself off as a man of the world if you’d been to Penscynor Wildlife Park or Wookey Hole.
Libertarians get obsessed about the loss of freedom from government intervention — often rightly so. But there is also a loss of freedom which results from the unchecked competitive behaviour of other people. Just as auction prices are often set by people who overbid, social norms are often driven by people who care more than everyone else. Social media serves to make this effect worse, since you are continually exposed to the edited highlights of everyone else’s life.
In my view, modern libertarianism needs to stop obsessing about legislation, and start challenging unrealistic social norms instead. The first thing I’d do is ban all those bloody cake programmes. As we all secretly know, you can have a perfectly fabulous evening with friends with just four bottles of plonk and a bike-delivered pizza. But the culinary bar is now set so stupidly high that any form of social engagement entails a day spent on the fatuous preparation of needlessly poncey food. The net result is that soon nobody sane will have the energy to host anything at all.
Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK.