It is an old-established truth, a truism in fact, that money does not buy you happiness — though, as the late Professor Joad pointed out, it does allow you to be miserable in comfort. Yet the great majority of people, knowing this, nevertheless devote their energies to increasing their wealth, which suggests that happiness is not actually their ultimate goal. In fact, most people don’t have an ultimate goal.
The authors of this book, father and son, seek to persuade us that we should devote more of our energies to things that are done for their own sake, that are good in themselves, rather than spend our lives on the treadmill of getting and spending, which is ultimately no more satisfying than the work of prisoners who are forced to dig holes only to fill them again. They want to
rehabilitate the common good to replace the militant individualism that actually leads to servitude and a decrease in freedom. They believe that the economy should serve us, rather than we it.
Personally, I am viscerally in sympathy with criticisms of consumerism. One has only to watch the massed ranks of British shoppers on a Saturday afternoon, searching for clothes but eternally scruffy and attired in the worst possible taste, to appreciate that a general increase in income will not necessarily lead to a richer life. An ever greater panoply of gadgetry is not the royal road to satisfaction; one is reminded of the opening words of Johnson’s Rasselas, that address
Ye who listen with credulity to the whispers of fancy, and pursue with eagerness the phantoms of hope; who expect that age will perform the promises of youth, and that the deficiencies of the present day will be supplied by the morrow…
The modern consumer is surely the arch-pursuer of the phantoms of hope, who believes, or hopes, that the gadgets of tomorrow will supply the deficiencies of the present day.
Yet the division between what is done for its own sake and what is done for instrumental purposes — further consumption — is not as clear-cut as the Skidelskys suppose. I love reviewing books, for example, and even have some over-exalted notion of its social usefulness as an activity; but I would not do it without the prospect of pay. And when the authors cite workers in supermarkets as examples of those subjected in consumer society to meaningless drudgery, they display the typical prejudice of intellectuals, failing to notice that the staff of supermarkets are almost invariably helpful in a very cheerful way. In my experience, scribblers are more given to ill-humour than shelf-stackers.
The most curious omission in this book on the modern mania for the accretion of wealth is the effect on the human psyche of unsound money. This is curious because Lord Skidelsky is an eminent economist and the great biographer of Keynes, who wrote eloquently on this subject.
The problem with unsound money — of money that is not a store of wealth — is that it turns even the least greedy and avaricious of us perforce into speculators. Let us suppose that there is a standard of living that I want to maintain in my old age, not necessarily a very high one: how do I know, when a currency can be devalued to a fraction of its former worth at the stroke of a minister’s pen, that I have enough? I cannot, like a character in Jane Austen, claim to ‘have’ a thousand a year; instead, I must speculate, either myself or by proxy, to preserve the value of my possessions, for otherwise my wealth might halve in a couple of years.
The problem is compounded by the likelihood of wildly fluctuating tax regimes. And the habit of speculation, once ingrained, arouses greed, the hope of gain without concomitant personal effort. This is not merely an individual problem, but one that affects millions of people, and so alters profoundly the source, significance and meaning of wealth. It makes it difficult for a person to be content with what he has, or for anyone to answer the central question of this book, ‘How much is enough?’
Some of the Skidelskys’ criticisms of the modern liberal state — that it smuggles in value judgements under cover of a claimed neutrality — are shrewd and just. But the book also skates over the surface of problems, and thereby avoids difficulties and complexities. The authors point out, for example, that some people work too many hours in our society, while others too few or none at all; but in a world of increasing technical complexity, one man’s labour is not necessarily interchangeable with another’s. An overworked neurosurgeon cannot be relieved by bringing in a couple of unemployed labourers with time on their hands. The authors simplify; their hope of a stable world in which people place a limit on their own appetites, not by coercion but by choice fostered by a wise and scrupulous government, smacks of utopianism.
They end their book by saying: ‘Could a society entirely devoid of the religious impulse stir itself to the pursuit of the common good? We doubt it.’
The outlook for this country is hopeless, then, in view of the prospects for religion in it.