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How much is enough?

How much is enough?

Gary Gutting writes:

Is capitalism an enemy of the good life? Marxists and other radicals think so. Toward the end of How Much Is Enough?, Robert and Edward Skidelsky (an economist father and his philosopher son) quote one such thinker:

Working men have been surrendered, isolated and helpless, to the hard-heartedness of employers and the greed of unchecked competition…so that a small number of very rich men have been able to lay upon the teeming masses of the laboring poor a yoke little better than that of slavery.

Readers of Commonweal will be more likely than most to recognize the firebrand cited as Leo XIII in Rerum novarum.

The Skidelskys’ conclusion, as Gutting summarizes it in his review for Commonweal, is:

We need capitalism because no other economic system can produce sufficient goods to meet our essential material needs such as food, shelter, clothes, and medical care. But these goods are not enough. A good life mainly depends on intangibles such as love, friendship, beauty, and virtue—things capitalism cannot produce and money cannot buy. Given a sufficient minimum of material goods, the good life does not depend on the world of commerce.

The question for me is less whether people are overcome by greed and seek more than they need, but whether achieving and maintaining one’s place in the world now absorbs so much time and energy that people are unable to cultivate other virtues.

The review is deep and complex and deserves to be read in full.


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John B. Chilton

Jim, it depends on what you mean by “achieving and maintaining one’s place in the world.” Is “one’s place” a absolute level of material well being, or is your place a rank on the social ladder where your well being depends on being better off than others? You’re only caught in a Sisyphusian world if that is your well being hinges on keeping up with the Jones.

The modern world has made it easier to reach an absolute level of well being. That gives us the freedom to choose whether acquire more material goods or to use the time for love, friendship, beauty and virtue.

Economists have a concept that may be useful, the decomposition of a price change into income and substitution effects. The industrial and agricultural revolutions, and the modern technological revolution have ushered in a fall in the price of material goods. That means our real income has increased at the same time that material goods have become cheaper relative to “the good life”. The real income effect on broad categories like these mean we will choose more material goods and more of the good life. The substitution effect reinforces the income effect on the material goods, but works against the income effect on the good life and could overwhelm it.

But I’m not convinced that theoretical possibility is where we are today. Ask a serf.

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