Robert Skidelsky is a historian best known for his definitive three-volume biography of John Maynard Keynes; his son Edward Skidelsky is a philosopher. They have collaborated on a book arguing that people in wealthy countries like Britain and the United States work too hard and by doing so miss out on the “good life” — an ethical concept of a life as “worthy of desire, not just one that is widely desired”.
The inspiration for How Much is Enough? is – unsurprisingly, given the father’s preoccupation – an essay by Keynes. It is called “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren” and was published in 1930. Since it is by Keynes, it is ingenious and brilliantly written. It is also dated and unconvincing. It predicted that barring another world war or some comparable tragedy, a century hence per capita income would be four to eight times as much because of continued capital investment. So far, so good; despite another world war, GDP per capita in the US has increased almost sixfold since 1930 (and about the same in Britain), and we still have 18 years to go before the century is up. Keynes thought the increase in per capita production would lead to a sharp fall in the hours of work; by 2030 a person would have to work only 15 hours a week to maintain his standard of living. The “economic problem” would have been solved, and the challenge would be to fill up people’s leisure time with rewarding leisure activities.
This part of Keynes’ paper is wide of the mark. People in wealthy countries like the US and Britain are working fewer hours per week on average than in 1929, before the Great Depression reduced the amount of available work: roughly 40 rather than 50. But Keynes thought that by 2010 the average would be 20.
The Skidelskys are correct that because goods and services can be produced with much less labour than in 1930, we could live now as we did then while working many fewer hours. We want to live better than that. And what would we do with our newfound leisure? Most people would quickly get bored without the resources for varied leisure activities like foreign travel, movies and television, casinos, restaurants, watching sporting events, playing video games, eating out, having cosmetic surgery, and improving health and longevity. But with everyone working just 20 hours a week (on the way down to 15 in 2030), few of these opportunities would materialise, because people who worked so little would be unable to afford them. The implications would be social as well as individual. Productivity would fall because workers would acquire skills at a slower rate. Nations would be defenceless, with soldiers who were on duty only 20 hours a week and had few weapons because the employees of munitions makers were also working o nly 20 hours a week. Imagine the maintenance of internal order in a society in which police officers, firefighters and paramedics worked only 20 hours a week.
The Skidelskys have an exalted conception of leisure. They say that the true sense of the word is “activity without extrinsic end”: “The sculptor engrossed in cutting marble, the teacher intent on imparting a difficult idea, the musician struggling with a score, a scientist exploring the mysteries of space and time — such people have no other aim than to do what they are doing well.” That isn’t true. Most of these people are ambitious achievers who seek recognition. It is ridiculous to think that if people worked just 15 or 20 hours a week, they would use their leisure to cut marble or struggle with a musical score. If they lacked consumer products and services to fill up their time they would brawl, steal, overeat, drink and sleep late.
The authors offer suggestions for how to change the balance between work and leisure. First, everyone should receive either a wage from the government (with no obligation to work to earn it) generous enough to enable him to work only part time, or a capital endowment at birth; the risk of people squandering their endowment in “riotous living can be reduced by limiting their spending to approved objects (such as education)”; in addition, the schools would educate people for leisure. Second, they recommend imposing a progressive consumption tax, to make consumer products more costly in the hope of discouraging people from working hard to be able to afford them. Third, firms should be forbidden to deduct advertising expenditures from taxable income, since advertising encourages consumption.
But here is the oddest thing about the book: there is virtually no discussion of how people, their incomes halved, might be expected to employ the vastly greater leisure that the authors want them to have. Besides the sentence I quoted about the musician, sculptor, teacher and scientist – and the description is of their work, not of their leisure activities – there is a suggestion that a good leisure activity is letting one’s mind wander “freely and aimlessly”, and a list of three recreations – “playing football in the park, making and decorating one’s own furniture, strumming the guitar with friends” – offered to refute any contention that the authors’ conception of leisure is “narrowly highbrow”.
If you ask someone to work half as long for half the pay, you should have better answers to his question: what shall I do with my new leisure?
HOW MUCH IS ENOUGH?
Money and the Good Life
Robert Skidelsky and Edward Skidelsky
Other Press; 243 pages; $24.95
©2012 The New York Times News Service