Monday, October 1, 2012

Philosophy and the Rat Race

I recently finished How Much Is Enough? Money and the Good Life by the political philosopher/historian father-son duo Robert Skidelsky and Edward Skidelsky. The book basically traces the historical evolution of the philosophical concept of the 'good life,' covering the three big systems of ethics (consequentialism, deontology, and virtue) and then moving on to more modern stuff: Adam Smith, Marxism, the sexual revolution, John Rawls, environmentalism, happiness economics, and finally the capability theory of justice. The book closes with some policy suggestions designed encourage more "good life" living. A few takeaways:

  1. The whole book has a great futurist tilt to its analysis, largely due to its framing device: economist John Maynard Keynes' prediction that increasing worker productivity would result in tons of leisure time for most workers. Obviously that didn't happen, but by interpreting every historical theory in terms of its Utopian vision, we get a book that's not just your typical (unoriginal) 'history of philosophy'. I wish they had pushed this theme a bit further into more explicitly futurist territory.
  2. For me the best nugget of new information in the book was an insight by economist Gary Becker. According to Becker, we ought to look at leisure time not as a benefit but as a cost--the cost of not working! Rich, highly productive people, then, give up a lot to just chill out and do nothing. This realization overturns the conventional wisdom: there's no a priori reason to expect work hours to decrease as wealth and productivity increase.
  3. Interestingly, this book really emphasizes the huge historical significance of the story of Faust, in its various incarnations. Put it on your reading list.
  4. The last two chapters, focusing on the specific elements of the 'good life', were unoriginal and unpersuasive. Essentially the authors create a list of conditions necessary for an individual to live a 'good life.' They attempt to justify this list without grounding it in any particular ethical framework, creating a sense of arbitrariness. Additionally, their theory says nothing about how to deal with situations where trade-offs between ingredients are necessary.
For more, check out Richard Posner's New York Times book review, and definitely check out this EconTalk interview with Robert Skidelsky.

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