Allen Lane/Penguin Books, 2012, xi+243 pp, hbk, 1 846 14448 6, £20
The thesis of this book is that there is a ‘good life’ which can be defined independently of our subjective desires, and that it is possible to determine the elements of that good life and some of the means for attaining it.
The first chapter sets out from Keynes’ prediction that increasing automation would enable us to experience a good life at the same time as working shorter hours: but Keynes ‘did not understand that capitalism would set up a new dynamic of want creation which would overwhelm traditional restraints of custom and good sense’ (p.42) – and, as the Skidelskys correctly note in chapter 2, capitalism ‘has given us wealth beyond measure, but has taken away the chief benefit of wealth: the consciousness of having enough’ (p.69).
Chapter 3 surveys pre-modern economic thought, and particularly Aristotle’s, for whom money is the servant of the good life rather than being an end in itself. The Skidelskys then divert us down two cul-de-sacs in order to back us out again. They explore the modern ‘happiness economics’, find it methodologically and ethically suspect, and decide that the pursuit of happiness is no more likely to lead to the good life than is the pursuit of money:
Our proper goal, as individuals and as citizens, is not just to be happy but to have reason to be happy. To have the good things of life – health, respect, friendship, leisure – is to have reason to be happy. (p.123)
Similarly, the authors urge us not to argue from the dangers of climate change to a necessity to reduce economic growth. They prefer a ‘good life environmentalism’: the pursuit of an objectively good life which requires us to treat nature kindly because ‘harmony with nature is part of the good life’ (p.140).
Chapter 6 is the heart of the book because it describes the good life in terms of a set of ‘basic goods’, defined as goods which are ‘universal, meaning that they belong to the good life as such … final, meaning that they are good in themselves, and not just as a means to some other good … sui generis, meaning that they are not part of some other good … indispensable, meaning that anyone who lacks them may be deemed to have suffered a serious loss or harm’ (pp.150-52). On the basis of this definition the authors list seven basic goods: health, security, respect, personality (‘the ability to frame and execute a plan of life reflective of one’s tastes, temperament and conception of the good’ (p.160)), harmony with nature, friendship, and leisure.
The authors study indicators related to the elements of the good life and find that in many ways life in the UK is less good than it was forty years ago. They recommend a ‘non-coercive paternalism’ (p.193), and at the heart of their prescription is an argument for a Citizen’s Income on the basis of their definition of the good life. For instance: leisure and self-directed activity are necessary constituents of the good life, so to enable more people to be employed part-time, which a Citizen’s Income would do, would enable more people to experience the good life.
It is unfortunate that the book advocates the pursuit of the good life purely in terms of our generation of homo sapiens, and explicitly does so in the chapter on ‘limits to growth’. A good life for the planet, and a good life for future generations, are surely just as important as the good life for us. The reader will need to decide whether the Skidelskys have made an adequate case for downplaying that importance. It is also a pity that the book contains no separate bibliography.
But having said that, it is a pleasure to see a book which in general so cogently combines a clearly formulated principle, diagnosis of our current plight, a clear route towards a desired end, and detailed policy prescription designed to take us along that route.
We are of course most encouraged that the Skidelskys have concluded that the attainment of the good life requires a Citizen’s Income.