Listen up, Americans. Listen up, citizens of the world’s advanced economies.
Stop. Just stop it.
You’re rich enough. Well, at least a good chunk of you are. Time to take it easy. Forget your life’s work,even if it brings you deep satisfaction. Forget about innovating and producing more with less.
You’re really just wage slaves, laboring automatons persuaded by slick advertising that you want that new iPad or iPhone. A job is just a way to afford more consumption of stuff you don’t really want and sure don’t really need. Nothing more.
But enough of my exhortations, British historian and John Maynard Keynes biographer Robert Skidelsky says it so much better today in the Financial Times:
So what is to be done? First, we must convince ourselves that there is something called the good life, and that money is simply a means to it. To say that my purpose in life is to make more and more money is as insane as saying my purpose in eating is to get fatter and fatter. But second, there are measures we can take collectively to nudge us off the consumption treadmill.
One is to improve job security. Government should restore the full employment guarantee. This does not mean guaranteeing everyone a 40-hour a week job. Government should gradually reduce the maximum allowable hours of work for most occupations, guaranteeing a job for everyone who wants to work that amount of time.
At the same time it should institute an unconditional basic income for all citizens. This would aim to improve the choice between work and leisure. Critics say this would be a disincentive to work. That is precisely its merit in a society which should be working less and enjoying life more.
Third, government should reduce the pressure to consume by curbs on advertising. We already have curbs to guard against specific harms: it would not be a big jump to recognise that excessive consumption is itself harmful – to the environment, to contentment, to any mature conception of the good life.
Underpinning these measures would be a steeply progressive consumption tax, with a top bracket of, say, 75 per cent. This would be a tax on what is spent, not on earnings. It would reduce the pressure to consume, finance basic income, and encourage private saving for old age and infirmity.
Wow. In just a few short paragraphs, Skidelsky advocates frightening new limits on economic and political freedom so that we could all be “happier” — with happiness defined by Skidelsky himself. This might be the worst FT op-ed I’ve ever read.
And it apparently never really occurs to Skidelsky that, you know, lots of people might actually get something better, deeper than “happiness” — which to Skidelsky may mean nothing more than superficial entertainment or materialist diversion — from their jobs. AEI’s Arthur Brooks offers a different perspective, “But what does the right to pursue happiness mean? It means earned success: The right to define and seek our happiness as we see fit, through creating value in our lives and in the lives of others.” And for many people, that happiness comes through their work.
But elites like Skidelsky have often frowned on work despite their professed affection for the working man. As economist Deirdre McCloskey writes in Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World, the rising reputation of commerce—of making money through private trade rather than government favor—was a key driver of the Industrial Revolution. Historically, elites have looked down on the merchant class, particularly what today we call small business and entrepreneurs. She notes that in ancient Rome, Cicero declared that “commerce, if on a small scale, is to be regarded as vulgar; but if large and rich … it is not so very discreditable … if the merchant … contented with his profits … betakes himself from the port itself to an estate in the country.” Even the commercial Dutch in the 1500s thought hustling for a buck was disreputable, an attitude summed up by the proverb, “A lie is a merchant’s prosperity.”
But then that all changed:
After about 1700 in Britain … the vulgarities of the economy and of money and of dealing with their unsettling creativity came gradually to be talked about as noncorrupting. They began to be seen in theory as worthy of a certain respect, as not being hopelessly vulgar or sinful or underhanded or lower caste. In a word they became dignified, in part because they were recognized as good for the nation, not a useless scam.
Work can be mindless repetition. But it can also be an outlet for creativity and imagination, one that brings a sense of self-worth, identity, and achievement. A job well done as a way of doing the Lord’s work, of creating a “good life.”
Somehow I doubt Skidelsky thinks in those terms, at least not explicitly. But imagine if a government official told the 73-year-old that he had written enough books. Time for some enforced leisure, Mr. Skidelsky (who, by the way has a new book coming out, his tenth, How Much is Enough? The Love of Money and the Case for the Good Life).
Skidelsky’s life work is almost certainly meaningful for him. He doesn’t work to consume or work to live, he lives to work. Too bad he doesn’t recognize that same desire in the rest of us.