Yesterday I attended a very interesting symposium at Christ Church, Oxford on the 2012 book by Robert and Edward Skidelsky, How Much Is Enough? Money and the Good Life. I think my own The Economics of Enough was my passport to the event.
How Much is Enough?: Money and the Good Life
The Skidelskys’ book is a good and provocative read. It starts with the question posed by the famous Keynes essay, Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren: why are we not now enjoying much more leisure, given that Keynes was right in his prediction about the degree of technological progress. One aspect I very much agreed with is their point that it is important to keep the ideas of economic growth and well-being or social welfare distinct – this is one of the themes of my new book, GDP: A Brief But Affectionate History as well. GDP growth is a means to an end, reasonably highly correlated with well-being, but not an end in itself.
However, in other ways I strongly disagreed with their book. They argue for stopping growth and stopping technological progress, including, Lord Skidelsky explained yesterday, stopping or slowing down further automation of work by taxing the use of robots. To my mind, that completely misses the point about economic growth, which is not to have more and more of the same things, but to have more variety and new things. Innovation is the source of improvements in well-being, from trivial innovations to life-changing medicines or major technologies such as the internet and mobiles. GDP growth is the set of footprints left by innovation, although it fails to count the increase in welfare caused by new goods and services. At one point the Skidelskys write: “The material conditions for the good life already exist,” and say nothing has improved since 1974. This is absurd. Since 1974, UK life expectancy at birth has increased by 9 years to 81, the web has been invented, and we’ve moved from almost nobody having central heating to almost all of us having it – its lack is now taken as a poverty indicator.
The seminar included a long discussion about the a-morality or immorality of conventional economics. The economists taking part were probably atypical, as we all agreed that economics does need some post-crisis rethinking. The philosophers present focused on questions of liberalism and paternalism. Professor Cecile Fabre was particularly strong on questioning the Skidelskys’ failure to identify the ‘good life’ with some of the key values of liberalism.
I left with another book the two Skidelskys have edited, Are Markets Moral? Glancing at the contents, I think its answer is ‘no’. But even to pose the question is to make markets overly-abstract. Markets are institutions in which people have social relations. The markets for tea bags, accountancy services, and radio spectrum have entirely different structures and characteristics. ‘Moral’ isn’t a description that can apply to abstract nouns at all. One can sensibly ask if bankers are moral, at risk of generalising, but not markets.