Monday, October 1, 2012

Is it the duty of government to realize the good life for all citizens?

‘If the first goal of the individual is to realize the good life for himself, the first duty of the state is to realize, insofar as it lies within its power, the good life for all citizens’.

How Much is Enough?: Money and the Good Life By: Edward Skidelsky,Robert SkidelskyThe quoted passage is from ‘How Much is Enough?’(2012) by Robert Skidelsky - a biographer, economics professor and member of the British House of Lords - and his son. Edward, a philosopher.

Some readers might think that the quoted passage implies support for the view that it is the role of government to ensure that individuals have the freedom to realize the good life as they choose. That is far from what the authors have in mind, however.

Robert and Edward Skidelsky are unashamedly paternalistic in their views on the role of government. They recommend that governments should promote the good life by taxing the rich more heavily, imposing sumptuary taxes, regulating labour markets more extensively, disallowing tax deductions for advertising, and imposing more restrictions on international trade and capital flows. They see such interventions as necessary to ‘free up’ more time for leisure, reduce income inequality, improve the social bases of health, personality, respect and friendship, and help people to live in harmony with nature.

The authors describe their policy approach as ‘non-coercive paternalism’ because it involves incentives and disincentives rather than commands. Yet coercion must still be involved. The authors do not suggest that people who do not share the Skidelsky view of the good life would be exempt from compliance with their proposed taxes and regulations.

How do the authors make a case for paternalistic interventions to encourage people to live the good life? J M Keynes (later Lord Keynes), a famous economist, plays an important role in their story. In 1928, Keynes predicted that within 100 years humanity would be able to satisfy all its material needs by working at most three hours a day. For a time, it seemed as though this prediction might prove to be correct, because a substantial proportion of the benefits of rising productivity were being realized through greater leisure. The Skidelskys suggest that at the beginning of the 1970s it looked as though the rich part of the world was close to ‘the dawn of universal abundance’.

What went wrong? The explanation offered by the authors is that governments shifted to a market-based philosophy when Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan came to power. They acknowledge that free marketeers made some telling points about the crisis of Keynesian economics (the combination of rising unemployment and rising inflation) resulting from attempts to pursue full employment through fiscal deficits. But they claim that the oil price hikes of 1973 and 1979 played a bigger role in exposing economic rigidities and paving the way for a move toward free market policies.

So, how could a move toward greater freedom discourage people from choosing ‘the good life’? The authors’ explanation seems to have two components.

First, they argue that a free market economy gives employers power to make employees work longer hours. That doesn’t make sense to me. If large numbers of workers wanted to work shorter hours, surely it would be in the interests of employers to find ways to accommodate their desires. Over the last 40 years, it seems to me that working hours have actually become more flexible, with a move toward casual employment and greater willingness of many employers to allow workers to take time off to meet family obligations.

Second, the authors claim that capitalism rests on an endless expansion of wants: ‘It has taken away the consciousness of having enough’. The authors see advertising as the major culprit:
‘Advertising may not create insatiability, but it exploits it without scruple, whispering in our ear that our lives are drab and second-rate unless we consume “more”.’

This seems to me to be another weak point in the story. Advertisers didn’t suddenly begin to whisper in our ears with the move toward freer markets in the 1980s. They were whispering in our ears during the 1950s and 60s, when working hours were declining. And it is possible for people to cope with the whispering and to decide for themselves how much is enough. A lot of people choose non-materialistic lifestyles. Many of those who choose to work long hours and/or multiple jobs do so in order to enjoy a more relaxed lifestyle at a later stage of their lives.

I disagree profoundly with the central argument of this book that governments should construct incentives and disincentives to guide people to adopt that particular perception of the good life. Nevertheless, I enjoyed reading ‘How Much is Enough?’ I agree with much of the discussion of the concept of happiness and strongly support the view presented there that a happy life is more than just a string of agreeable mental states. I admired the way the authors developed the idea that we should consider harmony with nature as part of the good life for humans.

In a personal sense, I find myself substantially in agreement with the authors’ vision of the good life. If they had confined themselves to sermonizing I would be cheering instead of jeering.

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