Robert Skidelsky on the good life

John Maynard Keynes wrote an essay about what life should be like for us now.

He made two observations. First, that our generation would have more than enough to live on. Second, that our generation would work little more than a dozen hours a week, because that is what it would take to earn that income. The great task, he thought, was to become skilled not in the arts of the marketplace but the arts of living, so as to be able to seize the great opportunity of the 20th century and live well.

Keynes was right on the first count, and completely wrong on the second. It was an observation made by Robert Skidelsky, the scholar of Keynes, and his son Edward, at How The Light Gets In. They are writing a book together about the good life, and why we fail to seek it.

The question they pose is how to escape the rat race, which is to say, the comparative approach to the good life, whereby the good life is defined as doing slightly better than average. If most have an iPad, I want an iPad 2. If most shop at Sainsbury’s, I treat myself at M&S.

The problem with this relativistic approach is that it has no independent notion of what a good life might be – as if better-than-the-average is more fulfilling, or the average is any measure to go by anyway. Plus, it leads to growth for growth’s sake, and money for money’s sake, which as Edward pointed out, has been regarded as an absurd if not despicable philosophy for most of human history, until now. Hence, say, the tenth commandment, against coveting your neighbour’s ass, as if that were a route to happiness.

So, not having any decent notion of the good life is unfortunate, possibly disastrous. They argue that there is an intellectual and an economic task involved in reconceiving it.

The intellectual task is, in a way, obvious: talk about it. Though that is now very hard to do in any meaningful, collective way. The two main institutions that used to do so – those of politics and religion – have either ceased to do so or have ceased to be places where most people want to do so. Hence we have the politics of management not ideas, and the religiosity of personal salvation not the kingdom, to use the Christian terms.

The economic task would involve a number of elements. Robert talked of taxing consumption rather than income, so that the tax form of the future would record what you’ve spent rather than what you’ve earned, and progressively tax the former. Alternatively, it would involve shorter working weeks, brought in by more job-sharing, something that does happen in some parts of Europe, where people not only work less but are wealthier per capita too.

(Incidentally, if you’d hoped that behavioural economics and the like were undermining the neo-liberal model of rational economic man, which so underpins market/rat race economics, think again. Skidelsky senior told me before that behavioural economics is a fringe concern, which the big money is keeping out of the mainstream. And he should know: he’s on the board of George Soros’ Institute for New Economic Thinking, which questions market fundamentalism.)

The pressure to consume would have to be tackled too, and advertising was clearly in their sights here. TV is the big vehicle for advertisers, programmes being those entertainments that make watching the adverts bearable. Subscription and license-fee TV would be promoted in a world concerned about the good life, they argued. The ban of advertising to kids would be extended too, as it is elsewhere in Europe.

But underpinning it all would have to be a massive shift in consciousness. We’d have to be prepared to countenance visions of the good life that were not privatised to whatever-seems-good-to-me – the big-on-choice, faux-freedom rat race agenda that currently holds sway.

It’s the shift we failed to make over the century just passed of economic prosperity. For as Keynes also mused darkly when predicting that growth: ‘How few of us can sing!’

(Image: ‘Singing Couple’, Johann van der Meer.)