How Much is Enough? Money and the Good Life

This is a summary of the Skidelskys 2012 book How Much is Enough: Money and the Good Life. The book is important for three main reasons.

First, its argument for the importance of identifying clear end “goods” beyond more material wealth.

Second, that the good life is identifiable and is universal (though they are careful to emphasize that their particular set of goods need not be the final set). This reasoned defence of tolerant universalism is a valuable rebuttal of relativism.

Third, that to move from where we are today towards this “good life” will requires active coordination including intervention by the state (e.g. consumption taxes to prevent over-consumption). This is important, as it rebuts a commonly held view that we can “just rely on the market”.


Chapter headings

  1. Keynes’s Mistake
  2. The Faustian Bargain
  3. The Uses of Wealth
  4. The Mirage of Happiness
  5. Limits to Growth: Natural or Moral?
  6. Elements of the Good Life
  7. Exits from the Rat Race

The question

The title question “How Much is Enough?” is, in fact, a lead in to a more fundamental question: “How Much for What?” to which the answer is to “Live the Good Life”. Thus, the book’s main purpose is to answer the more basic question “What is the Good Life?” — rather than its title.

“The purpose of this book is to persuade the reader that such a thing—the good life—does exist and can be known, and that we ought to strive to live it. How much money we need to live it comes at the end of the argument, not at the beginning.” [Preface]

The answer

The “Good Life consists in realising the following “basic goods” (or ultimate goods or end-values) (see spreadsheet with comparison), as set out in Chapter 6: Elements of the Good Life:

  • Health. By health we mean the full functioning of the body, the perfection of our animal nature. Health includes all things needed to sustain life, or a reasonable span of life, but is by no means limited to them.
  • Security. By security we mean an individual’s justified expectation that his life will continue more or less in its accustomed course, undisturbed by war, crime, revolution or major social and economic upheavals.
  • Respect. To respect someone is to indicate, by some formality or otherwise, that one regards his views and interests as worthy of consideration, as things not to be ignored or trampled on.
  • Personality. By personality we mean first of all the ability to frame and execute a plan of life reflective of one’s tastes, temperament and conception of the good.
  • Harmony with Nature. TODO – not that clearly defined by them …
  • Friendship. This is a necessarily inadequate translation of the ancient Greek philia, a term encompassing all robust, affectionate relationships. A father, spouse, teacher and workmate might all be “friends” in our sense of the term.
  • Leisure. Leisure is that which we do for its own sake, not as a means to something else. This contrasts with contemporary use where leisure is synonymous with relaxation and rest. But leisure is not just time off work but a special form of activity in its own right.

Lead-in and Background

Chapters one to five:

  • establish that there is a problem (and why was Keynes wrong that everything would be great by now)
  • some of the causes of that problem (in the nature of capitalism). Their critique of modern capitalism.
  • Critique alternative critiques of capitalism and their solutions: “Before outlining our vision of the good life, we must look at a couple of other influential attempts to halt the growth juggernaut. The first appeals to the concept of happiness, the second to that of sustainability. We are in sympathy with the goals of both movements, but believe they mislocate the real basis of our objection to endless growth, which is ethical, not utilitarian.”
    • “Happiness” — still lacks sensible ends (“happiness is not a well-defined or good end in itself), still obsseses over more (“happier, fitter”)
    • (Deep) Ecology / Sustainability: either has no clear set of alternative ends — “sustainability” — or, the ends are unconvincing — “deep ecology”. Simple sustainability is a utilitarian argument: we are using too much now to be sustainable. Deep ecology is a fairly muddy set of ideas around the inherent value of animals and nature. This may be important but it is insufficient in itself as a powerful vision of the good life.
  • Distinguish “good life” from hedonism – and the happiness obsession. [ed: This is a sensible distinction in my opinion]

Critique of Capitalism

Comment: they argue (rightly) that the very fact of setting out these values and implicitly arguing for their universal validity is important — and radical (irrespective of whether their precise set of values is perfectly correct). Modern capitalism has increasingly got trapped in a false relativistic mindset other based by the following erroneous assumptions:

  • Relativism – “de gustibus non est disputandam”, “chacun a son gout”, “each to their own taste”
  • Hedonism – a focus on pleasure or happiness (a confusion of hedonia with eudaimonia)
  • Insatiability (“more is always better”)
  • [together] => Individualistic hedonistic libertarian relativisim

An aside on growth: “Where does all this leave growth? Obviously no sane policy has growth itself as a final end.”

  • “First, growth might sensibly be pursued as a means to one or more of the basic goods.”
  • “Second, growth might interest us as an index of something else we value. … growth “should not be considered the objective of economic policy, but rather the highly likely outcome … of two things desirable in themselves—economic freedom to make choices, and a spirit of continual enquiry and desire for change.”


A tight, well-written, and well-argued book on an important topic.

  • TODO: Would be interesting to track down responses in media — would give a flavour of attitudes out there.
  • TODO: would be interesting to start doing surveys amongst people on end-values just like e.g. Schwarz is doing on behaviour-values.

What was missing? What could be improved?

  • A stronger sense of why we have ended up here —- and the strategy for getting to this better place. These ideas are not that novel so would be good to address “if you’re so right, why aren’t more people in agreement”. This would include:
    • Psychological traps (see below)
    • Collective action traps. People are embedded in a network of social relations and financial relations. If everyone were to opt out it would work but if I just do so i may face problems (including access to goods like housing — if everyone stays in the rat race I may find myself priced out)
  • Little or no awareness of Buddhist thought or mindfulness as a practice. Buddhism mentioned just 3 times in main text and then only in passing e.g.
    • “Buddhism is usually counted as the third traditional teaching of China, but in terms of its influence on the culture at large, it can be grouped together with Taoism.” [not even accurate]
    • [Buddhism largely subsumed under Hinduism]“the Hindu scriptures urge us to extinguish it altogether. “He who is without desire, who is freed from desire …—he goes to Brahma.” This ideal, better known to us under its Buddhist name of nirvana, bears some resemblance to the Stoic concept of apatheia or tranquillity, but is otherwise without parallel in the West.”
  • A lack of consideration for the psychological factors. Getting in caught in the treadmill of capitalistic growth may be due largely to strong psychological features (acquisitiveness, competition, individualistic and dualistic ways of thinking). We have to ask why we don’t pursue the ideals they set out — they aren’t, after all, entirely novel. I would argue that a big part of the answer to that is our own erroneous cognitive and behavioural patterns — and that mindful (Buddhist) ontology and practice are central to addressing those errors.



In a previous book, Robert Skidelsky did venture to name a sum that the economist John Maynard Keynes would have considered “enough” to satisfy average needs: £40,000 or $66,000 or €46,000 a year (in today’s money). See Robert Skidelsky, Keynes: The Return of the Master, 2nd edn. (London: Penguin, 2010), p. 142, which also reveals the basis of the calculation. But Keynes was assuming a more settled idea of what the good life was than is now true, and less pressure to lead a bad life than now exists.

TODO: check the reference and the details of the calculation of this number in the referenced book

Critique of insatiability and capitalism

Introduction – p.1

This book is an argument against insatiability, against that psychological disposition that prevents us, as individuals and as societies, from saying “enough is enough.” It is directed at economic insatiability, the desire for more and more money. It is chiefly directed at the rich parts of the world, which may be reasonably thought to have enough wealth for a decent collective life. For the poor parts of the world, where the mass of the people still live in great poverty, insatiability is a problem for the future. But in rich and poor societies alike, insatiability can be seen wherever the opulence of the very rich runs wildly ahead of the means of existence of the many.

Marxists contend that economic insatiability is a creation of capitalism, which will disappear with its abolition. Christians argue that it is the product of original sin. Our own view is that it is rooted in human nature—in the disposition to compare our fortune with that of our fellows and find it wanting—but has been greatly intensified by capitalism, which has made it the psychological basis of an entire civilization. What was once an aberration of the rich is now a commonplace of everyday life.

Capitalism is a two-edged sword. On the one hand, it has made possible vast improvements in material conditions. On the other, it has exalted some of the most reviled human characteristics, such as greed, envy and avarice. Our call is to chain up the monster again by recalling what the greatest thinkers of all times and all civilizations have meant by the “good life” and suggesting changes in current policy to help us achieve it.

In doing this, we will be challenging the current obsession with the growth of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as the chief goal of economic policy. We are not against economic growth as such, but we may reasonably ask not just growth for what, but growth of what. We want leisure to grow and pollution to decline. Both are part of any sane idea of human welfare. But both are excluded from GDP, which measures only that portion of domestic production that is traded in markets. There is no subtraction for pollution, and no addition for leisure. The extent to which further GDP growth will improve welfare is therefore moot. It surely does so for very poor countries, but it may be the case that rich societies already have too much GDP.

First, he asked something hardly discussed today: what is wealth for? How much money do we need to lead a good life? This might seem an impossible question. But it is not a trivial one. Making money cannot be an end in itself—at least for anyone not suffering from acute mental disorder. To say that my purpose in life is to make more and more money is like saying that my aim in eating is to get fatter and fatter. And what is true of individuals is also true of societies.

Aside: What is wrong with capitalism [ed: our comments more than authors]

  • It does not have base values
  • It ends up substituting its own “non-well” ways of behaving for these values — i.e. greed, envy, accumulativeness etc
  • Note: humans like to compare themselves — so they tend to like metrics that allow for comparison. Capitalism hooks into that big time.

Aside: Notes about environmental point:

  • Environmental “capital” is undermeasured — and under-priced
  • Evidence that we have a problem – and that we mismeasure “growth” if we use GDP
    • Economic Growth, Carrying Capacity, and the Environment. Arrow, Dasgupta et al (1996) [pdf]
    • Are We Consuming Too Much? Arrow et al 2004 JEP [pdf]

Chapter 6: Elements of a Good Life

First, what are useful criteria for “basic goods”? They are:

  • Universal …
  • Final — not just a means to some other good.
  • Sui-generis / largest category version of themselves. E.g. health vs freedom from cancer. Former is the ultimate category for the latter.
  • Indispensable: loss of them would be bad for anyone


An air of arbitrariness hangs over lists of basic goods, to dispel which we must make clear our criteria of inclusion. There are four:

  1. Basic goods are universal, meaning that they belong to the good life as such, not just some particular, local conception of it. To see the universal through the particular requires strong philosophical intuitions, guided by the testimony of different ages and cultures. This latter proviso is frequently forgotten. Too often, the “intuitions” of modern philosophers simply repeat the platitudes of early twenty-first-century liberalism. Nussbaum’s catalogue of central human capabilities includes, for example, “protection against discrimination on the basis of race, sex, sexual orientation, religion, caste, ethnicity, or national origin”—an impeccably progressive list, but hardly a universal one.10 A more philosophical caste of mind might question the equation of universal with modern liberal values. After all, from the standpoint of eternity, our own civilization is just as parochial as any other.
  2. Basic goods are final, meaning that that they are good in themselves, and not just as a means to some other good. (This distinguishes our basic goods from Rawls’s primary goods and from Nussbaum and Sen’s capabilities.) The standard philosopher’s way of uncovering final goods is to ask “what for?” over and over, like certain annoying small children. When no further answer is forthcoming, we know we have hit upon a final good. “What is that bicycle for?” “To get me to work.” “And what is work for?” “To make me money.” “And what is money for?” “To buy me food.” “And what is food for?” “To keep me alive.” “And what is life for?” Blank stare. Life is not “for” anything. In our terms, it is part of the basic good of health.

All basic goods are final, but not all final goods are basic. An explanatory chain might conceivably come to an end with “in order to complete my collection of Soviet stamps.” Completing a stamp collection is a final good—it is not usually for the sake of anything else—but it is not basic, since it fails the test of both universality and indispensability, to be discussed in more detail below.

Many philosophers would want to add an additional last term to any given sequence of explanations, namely “in order to make me happy.” We think this is a mistake. Outside psychiatric clinics and philosophy seminars, people do not generally explain their actions by saying “this will make me happy.” As we have already argued in Chapter 4, this is a strong reason not to treat happiness as the ultimate good.

The requirement of finality rules out many goods that appear at first glance to be basic. Food, for instance, features in many traditional lists of basic goods, but as the above chain of questions shows, it is in fact instrumental to the basic good of life or health. Indulged in beyond this point, it ceases to be useful, and may even be harmful. (This is not to say that all spices and relishes superfluous to health are not good, just that they are not basic goods. We do not wish to reduce everyone to a diet of salad and tofu.) More relevantly to our theme, money cannot be a basic good, since it is essentially an instrument for obtaining other things. Other goods are more ambiguous. Health, security and leisure are on some accounts final, on others instrumental. We return to this issue below.

  1. Basic goods are sui generis, meaning that they are not part of some other good. The good of “freedom from cancer” is certainly universal and final, but not basic, because it can be subsumed under the larger good of health. Whether a good is sui generis or not is often hard to decide. For instance, family relationships, which we have included under the good of “friendship,” might be thought to merit a separate heading of their own. However, since what makes family and non-family relationships good is very much the same set of things—love, trust, stability—we decided that two categories would be superfluous.
  2. Basic goods are indispensable, meaning that anyone who lacks them may be deemed to have suffered a serious loss or harm. The qualification “anyone” is important. That missing, set-completing stamp might cause the stamp fanatic much genuine anguish, but this does not make a basic good. Nor need the loss or harm in question be perceived as such by its victim. Harms are frequently so taken for granted that they no longer register, but they are still harms.

Seven Basic Goods

There are seven basic goods:

  • Health
  • Security
  • Harmony with Nature
  • Friendship
  • Respect
  • Personality
  • Leisure

Comparison in a table.


Health. By health we mean the full functioning of the body, the perfection of our animal nature. Health includes all things needed to sustain life, or a reasonable span of life, but is by no means limited to them. It implies vitality, energy, alertness and that ruddy beauty favored by Tolstoy and other moralists over more decadent ideals. Health is generally associated with absence of bodily pain, but its value is not purely utilitarian, for a comfortably ill person (on a morphine drip, say) is still worse off than a healthy one. Above all, health means a happy obliviousness of one’s own body, as of a tool perfectly fitted to its tasks. In the words of French physician René Leriche, it is “life lived in the silence of the organs.”12 Health looks outwards. Illness throws one back upon oneself.

Many philosophers have ranked health lower than the other goods, on the grounds that it belongs to our animal as opposed to our distinctively human nature. “It is for the sake of the soul,” wrote Aristotle, setting the tone, “that … goods of the body are desirable at all, and all wise men ought to choose them for the sake of the soul, and not the soul for the sake of them.”13 If this is true, then health is not final in our sense, and so has no place on a list of basic human goods. But why deny health the status of a final end simply because animals can enjoy it too? Is that not just an intellectual’s prejudice? Our admiration of a young man’s vitality need not involve the further thought that it will help him walk to work, serve his country or whatever. We can admire it for its own sake, just as we do that of a playing dolphin or leopard cub.

Today, health is the one good on which liberal states feel entitled to take a positive stance, for, unlike the goods of the soul, it carries the authority of science. But is there really a distinction here? Science can tell us whether drug x treats condition y, but not that condition y itself constitutes “ill-health.” This latter presupposes a pre-scientific, common-sense understanding of what it is for human beings to flourish. We all know a healthy baby when we see one, just as we all recognize blindness and lameness as disabilities. Other cases are more controversial. How fat does one have to be to count as overweight? How bodily capable to count as fit? Our answer to these questions will depend on what we think of the martial virtues, of sport, sex and much else besides. In short, judgments of health are objective in the same sense and to the same degree as ethical judgments: they too rest on an idea of human flourishing.

Given this relationship, it is not surprising to find that the eclipse of teleological thinking in our culture has proceeded hand in hand with an unravelling of the concept of health. The process is similar to that we have already traced in connection with money. An earlier notion of health as being in “tip-top condition,” with everything “working as it should,” has given way to a new ideal of perpetual improvement. One symptom of this slippage is our obsession with longevity. Older medical traditions aimed to help individuals realize their natural lifespan; dying “of old age” was not deemed a calamity. But if there is no such thing as a natural lifespan, only a shifting, culturally relative norm, then death at any age can be seen as a regrettable and remediable failing. Modern science has rekindled the old alchemical promise of eternal youth; meanwhile, people who a few decades earlier would have died swiftly and relatively painlessly are kept alive in a state of chronic, debilitating sickness.*

Another symptom of this disorientation is the disappearance of any sharp distinction between curing the sick and enhancing the already healthy. Once the dividing-line was clear-cut: vital operations fell on one side, cosmetic improvements on the other. But if there is no such thing as perfect health, then any undesirable condition can be defined as illness and made an object of medical treatment. (And, as we saw in Chapter 1, there is no limit to the number of things that people can find undesirable.) This whole process is hastened along by the drugs companies, who have a strong interest in identifying the illnesses that their products will cure. The role of Pfizer, manufacturer of Viagra, in transforming what was once part and parcel of the human comedy into the fearsome new ailment of “erectile dysfunction” is a case in point.

Ultimately, this assimilation of medicine to the economic rat race destroys the very idea of good health. If every state of the body can be seen as defective relative to some other, preferred state, then we are all in a sense perpetually ill. The world becomes, as Goethe said it would, a vast hospital, in which everyone is nurse to everyone else. What is more, where the demand for health is insatiable, medical costs expand in tandem with or faster than income, keeping us tethered to the work/growth treadmill. It is thus crucial to our purpose that health not be defined in this demand-relative sense, but retain the older meaning of the body’s natural perfection. For it is only in this sense that it can function as part of a criterion of enoughness.


Security. By security we mean an individual’s justified expectation that his life will continue more or less in its accustomed course, undisturbed by war, crime, revolution or major social and economic upheavals. Security is a necessary condition for the realization of other basic goods on our list, in particular personality, friendship and leisure. But it is also a good in itself. Like any creature, a human being has an environment, a set of taken-for-granted objects against which his life runs its course. If this environment is changed abruptly or frequently, he will feel perplexed and threatened, like a cat in a new house or a caged animal released into the wild. Of course, as intelligent beings, we have in us that which transcends any environment—which sees “the stars above the roof,” as the philosopher Josef Pieper puts it.14 Nonetheless, roofs and all that they imply are still necessary, not least as providing a stable location from which to gaze upon the stars. Across the world, the word “peace” has a soothing ring, while “turmoil,” “chaos” and their equivalents bode ill.

To be sure, there are types—tyrants, speculators, romantic poets—who thrive on chaos. Chairman Mao, a tyrant and a romantic poet, loved chaos so much that he renamed it “permanent revolution.” In the West, security has so long been vilified by bohemian artists and intellectuals that admitting to a fondness for it now is almost like admitting to a fondness for garden gnomes. Yet the truth is that security is cherished by all creative spirits—including poets, when they are honest with themselves—as a condition of their own productivity. W. B. Yeats, writing in 1919, as Ireland descended into war, prayed that his young daughter would grow up to enjoy security:

And may her bridegroom bring her to a house

Where all’s accustomed, ceremonious;

For arrogance and hatred are the wares

Peddled in the thoroughfares.

How but in custom and in ceremony

Are innocence and beauty born?

Ceremony’s a name for the rich horn,

And custom for the spreading laurel tree.

Yeats was not immune to the romanticism of disorder. He had written rapturously about the “terrible beauty” of the Easter 1916 uprising. Yet faced with real chaos, his choice was clear. He knew that extreme civil disorder is destructive of the arts of civilization.

What are the effects of capitalism on security? Nineteenth-century liberals argued that le doux commerce would have a pacifying influence on international relations, since nations that traded with each other would have no good economic reasons to go to war. This argument has something to it, though of course trading nations can still go to war for bad economic or non-economic reasons, as they did in 1914. Internally, the effect of free markets on security is less salutary. “All that is solid melts into air,” wrote Marx famously, referring to the endless revolution of technologies, skills and ways of life under capitalism. This perpetual ripping up of the social fabric is wearisome for both workers and consumers. It is particularly taxing for those over the age of 40 or 50, who may have lost their taste for novelty. Free-market fundamentalists respond to such discontents with thinly veiled contempt. Those who cannot find work locally are urged to relocate, those whose talents have become redundant to “retool.” This is to get things precisely backwards. It is not human beings who need adapting to the market; it is the market that needs adapting to human beings. That was the guiding principle of the early twentieth-century social liberals, whose enlightened efforts to minimize the insecurities of capitalism have now largely been jettisoned, as we shall see in the next chapter.


Respect. To respect someone is to indicate, by some formality or otherwise, that one regards his views and interests as worthy of consideration, as things not to be ignored or trampled on. Respect does not imply agreement or liking: one can respect an enemy. It does not imply any special admiration. But it does imply a certain recognition or “taking account” of the other’s point of view, an attitude fundamentally different from that shown towards animals. One can have great affection for a pet dog, but not respect or disrespect.*

Respect is a necessary condition of other basic goods, friendship in particular. But it is also a good in itself. Everywhere, slavery—that is, the complete withdrawal of respect—is regarded as a calamity second only to or worse than death. Indeed, as has often been said, slavery is a kind of social death, since the slave, though still human in the biological sense, has lost the status of a human being. “That look was not one between two men,” writes Primo Levi, a survivor of Auschwitz, recalling his cross-examination by a Nazi scientist.15 Those exposed regularly to such looks soon come to assimilate their perspective. Self-respect cannot long survive the withdrawal of respect.

Respect need not be equal or reciprocal. I can respect someone who respects me less or not at all. Nonetheless, reciprocal respect is uniquely satisfying to both parties, for our deepest wish is for the respect of those whom we ourselves respect. (The adoration of a sycophant or a mob leads more often to self-contempt than to self-respect.) In all ages, we find groups of “peers” or “equals” respecting each other while looking down on everyone else. The citizenry of ancient Athens was one such group, as was the medieval nobility. Modern democracy extends the circle of peers to all adults in a given territory. Whether or not its triumph is guaranteed by History, as Francis Fukuyama has claimed, it now has the support of almost all the world, at least on paper. No modern vision of the good life can be such as to thwart it. This rules out, as we noted in Chapter 3, values such as mastery and “greatness of soul,” which cannot in principle be universalized.

Respect has many sources, varying from culture to culture. Strength, money, land, nobility, education and office have all figured prominently at one time or another. In modern bourgeois societies, the two basic sources of respect are civil rights and personal achievement. Civil rights confer what one might call “formal” respect; they guarantee their possessor protection against the worst forms of arbitrary power. But because they are bestowed on all citizens regardless of their merits, they are powerless to create real respect. For this, an individual must make something of his life; at the very least, he must earn an “honest crust.” Rank and title no longer automatically confer respect. The modern-day duke must prove his worth by sitting on charitable boards and so forth; otherwise he appears little better than a parasite.

Equality of formal respect can coexist with inequality of real respect, but only up to a point. If the gulf grows too gross, formal equality will come under strain. Suppose (what is not too implausible) that persistent unemployment were to lead to the division of society into two hereditary castes, a working majority and a jobless minority. It would then be all too easy to enshrine this de facto distinction in law, with differential civil and voting rights. Democracy as we know it would cease to exist. It is also important for mutual respect that inequality not exceed certain bounds.16 An elite that lives, plays and learns entirely separately from the general population will feel no bond of common citizenship with it. A more equal—not a completely equal—distribution of wealth and income is a requirement of democratic solidarity.

It is a feature of our approach, in contrast to most recent liberal discussions, that the requirements of justice are not seen as fixable in isolation from the good but as flowing from a particular conception of it. Equality is founded on fraternity, not vice versa. It follows that there can be no abstract, a priori answer, of the kind attempted by Rawls, to the question “how much inequality is too much?” One must look to the effects of inequality on the moral fabric of society, and on the political system in particular. Where the rich behave with lawless arrogance, the poor with impotent resentment and politicians with obeisance to money, inequality has exceeded the mark.


Personality. By personality we mean first of all the ability to frame and execute a plan of life reflective of one’s tastes, temperament and conception of the good. This is what Kantians call autonomy and Aristotelians practical reason. But the term personality implies something else as well, an element of spontaneity, individuality and spirit. Many philosophers—Kant himself springs to mind—have been models of rational self-government yet sadly lacking in personality.

Why distinguish personality and respect? Are the two concepts not correlative: respect is paid to personality; personality calls forth respect? But there is a subtle difference. One can picture a community—a monastic order, say, or a revolutionary phalanx—where all property is shared, all affairs open to scrutiny, and all wills bent on the common good. Members of this community might hold each other in the highest respect yet would lack personality. Personality implies a private space, a “room behind the shop” as Montaigne called it, in which the individual is at liberty to unfurl, to be himself. It denotes the inward aspect of freedom, that which resists the claims of public reason and duty.

Personality is pre-eminently a post-medieval, European ideal; it corresponds roughly to what the French liberal Benjamin Constant called “modern liberty.” But its appeal is not just local. All cultures have their holy fools and star-crossed lovers, honored in verse and song if not in real life. A society devoid of personality, where individuals accepted their social role without tension or protest, would scarcely be human. It would be more like a colony of intelligent social insects, of the sort envisaged in certain science-fiction films.

There is a tendency in modern liberalism to elevate personality—or autonomy, as it is usually called—into the ur-good from which all others derive. Something like this underlies, as we saw, the reluctance of Rawls, Sen and Nussbaum to discuss final ends. We think this is a mistake. Autonomy is one good among others, with no special precedence. (It can, without obvious absurdity, be sacrificed to love.) Detached from any broader background of ethical concern, autonomy degenerates into that “liberty of indifference” for which all things are possible and nothing matters. The modern rhetoric of “choosing values” is one symptom of this confusion. Properly understood, choice responds to value. Where it is allowed to create value, its exercise becomes arbitrary—like firing arrows into a barn door and drawing targets around them.

Private property is an essential safeguard of personality, for it allows individuals to live according to their own tastes and ideals, free from the tyranny of patronage and public opinion. “Stable fortunes … are an invisible social asset on which every kind of culture is more or less dependent,” wrote the French economist Marcel Labordère in a letter to Keynes. “Financial security for one’s livelihood is a necessary condition for organised leisure and thought. Organised leisure and thought is a necessary condition of a true, not purely mechanical, civilisation.”17 Note that it is specifically property, not income, that has this liberating influence. Soviet apparatchiks, with access to consumables of all sorts but not to capital, were not free to develop their personalities. Neither are those Wall Street traders whose huge pay packages vanish immediately in “necessary” expenses.* Independence is distinct from opulence, and vastly more important.

This “personalist” defense of property is central to modern Catholic social teaching, where it forms part of a subtle, two-pronged attack on both free-market capitalism and state socialism. The foundation was laid in Pope Leo XIII’s Encyclical of 1891, Rerum Novarum. Every householder, argues Leo, should possess the means of providing for himself and his family now and in perpetuity. To be without such means is to be forced into a degrading dependence on the managers of capital, be they private individuals or state servants. “The law, therefore, should favour ownership, and its policy should be to induce as many as possible of the people to become owners.”18 These ideas were to flow into the “distributionist” movement of early twentieth-century England, as well as into Christian Democratic thought in Germany and Italy, as we shall see in the next chapter.

The personalist argument for private property is distinct from the standard free-market one, and has different implications. For mainstream economics, property is simply part of the legal infrastructure of capitalism. Its distribution is not fundamentally a matter of concern, except insofar as it leads to monopoly pricing. By contrast, from a personalist point of view, the concentration of property in a few hands violates its essential function, which is to provide individuals and families with an independent livelihood. Property must be broadly distributed, or it cannot do its ethical job. How such a distribution might be brought about will be a central theme of the next chapter.

Harmony with Nature

Harmony with Nature. The case for treating harmony with nature as a basic human good was argued for in the last chapter. But the issue remains controversial. Martha Nussbaum reports that some of her South Asian colleagues dismissed the whole idea as “a romantic Green Party flourish.”19 We have encountered a similar reaction from Chinese friends. There is no denying the proneness of modern Westerners to wax sentimental over nature, sometimes to the extent of overlooking the weightier demands of human suffering. Nonetheless, a sense of kinship with animals, plants and landscapes is hardly a Western peculiarity. The abundance of nature poetry in Sanskrit, classical Chinese and other languages around the world is sufficient proof of that.

Harmony with nature has often been understood to favor rural over urban life. Ever since the days of Babylon and Rome, cities have appeared as sinks of squalor and vice. But the opposite point of view has also had its defenders. Socrates found all the wisdom he needed within the walls of Athens. Marx spoke of the idiocy of rural life. There is no need for us to enter into this old debate; both sides have some truth to them. What is new, however, is the sheer scale of the modern city. An inhabitant of eighteenth-century Paris, then the largest city in the world, had only to walk thirty minutes to find himself in farmland. His modern equivalent would have to walk six hours through crowded traffic. Here is the source of that typically modern feeling of urban malaise and that yearning, often comic in its effects, to “get back to nature.” The ill-effects of urban overcrowding on behavior and mood have been well documented by psychologists.

Should we abolish the modern city, then? With current population densities, such a policy would only succeed in transforming the country into a vast suburb. But we should strive to ensure that cities are not entirely alienated from their rural surroundings. For millennia, local food markets served as the main point of contact between town and country. These are now largely gone, and with them all sense of place and season. The modern British foodie can tickle his jaded palate with Japanese tempura, Sichuan chili, Moroccan couscous and a host of other pickings from the global storehouse, all equally detached from any context of meaning. Alienation from nature is just one of the unpriced costs of consumer choice.


Friendship. This is a necessarily inadequate translation of the ancient Greek philia, a term encompassing all robust, affectionate relationships. A father, spouse, teacher and workmate might all be “friends” in our sense of the term. As mentioned above, this might seem to blur a crucial distinction between family relations, which are unchosen, and friendships in the strict sense, which are elective. But examined closely, the distinction is not so clear-cut. All family relationships have an elective element—beyond a certain point, one has to work at being a mother or a sister—and all deep non-family relationships have a binding force, often expressed by the extension to them of family terms: blood-brother, mother superior and so forth. Family and other personal relations vary in structure and importance from culture to culture, but some such relations are clearly essential to any conceivable version of the good life. “No one would choose to live without friends,” noted Aristotle, “even if he had the other good things.”20

Why do we speak of “friendship” instead of “community,” a word that has become horribly popular in recent decades? Our concern has to do with reification. It is all too easy to talk about the “good of the community” as though this were something over and above the good of its constituent members. The term “friendship” is not open to this kind of abuse. My friendship with Paul is clearly a relation between me and Paul; it does not float above us, ghost-like, with interests and rights all of its own. If we could learn to think of communities in this fashion, as networks of friends, one notorious source of political oppression would be removed.

Friendship was taken seriously in the ancient world. Aristotle, in his classic discussion of the subject, distinguishes friendship proper from utility-friendship (based on a coincidence of interests) and pleasure-friendship (based on shared amusements). True friendship exists when each party embraces the other’s good as his own, thereby bringing into being a new common good. It is a relationship possible only between people of virtue, who love one another for what they are, not for what they can offer. Friendship is both personal and political. It binds together members of a family and, by extension, citizens of a polis. It is “the greatest good of states and what best preserves them against revolutions.”21 These words sound strange to modern ears. We are used to thinking of the state as an alliance of self-interested individuals, and of friendship as a purely private relationship, of no political significance. But from Aristotle’s point of view, a state without friendship is no state at all. A state is not “a mere society … established for the prevention of mutual crime and for the sake of exchange.” It is “the union of families and villages in a perfect and self-sufficing life, by which we mean a happy and honourable life.”22

Writing a hundred and fifty years before Aristotle, on the other side of the world, Confucius nonetheless shared his belief in the political importance of personal relationships. “Those who in private life behave well towards their parents and elder brothers, in public life seldom show a disposition to resist the authority of their superiors.”23 But the resemblance is superficial only. Confucius’ focus is on deference to authority, not participation in shared goods. And whereas Aristotle subsumes the family under the broader heading of philia, the Chinese philosopher singles it out for special commendation. “Surely proper behaviour towards parents and elder brothers is the trunk of Goodness?”24 These differences of attitude are still visible today. Western children often grow up to view their parents as “friends” in the narrow sense, whereas in China the relationship remains one of mutual love and sacrifice throughout life.

Friendship is not primarily an economic good, but it has economic prerequisites. Social trust does not flourish in times of famine. And an economy marked by continual restructuring, downsizing and outsourcing will not be hospitable to deep, long-lasting relationships. “You need to rid your life of Leeches and replace them with Energizers,” writes American lifestyle coach Robert Pagliarini, a message reiterated in countless self-help books and websites.25 In Aristotelian terms, friends acquired with the specific aim of “energizing” oneself are not real friends at all, but utility friends. Still, they are a predictable feature of a culture that prizes autonomy and mobility above almost all else.


Leisure. In contemporary parlance, leisure is synonymous with relaxation and rest. But there is another, older conception of leisure, according to which it is not just time off work but a special form of activity in its own right. Leisure in this sense is that which we do for its own sake, not as a means to something else. The philosopher Leo Strauss wrote of his friend Kurt Riezler that “the activity of his mind had the character of noble and serious employment of leisure, not of harried labor.”26 It is in this sense that we wish “leisure” to be understood.

Leisure in our sense has no very close connection to leisure as it is generally understood. Paid work could be leisure in our sense if undertaken not primarily as a means to money but for its own sake. (Many writers would carry on writing even if they earned nothing for it, or could earn more doing something else.) Conversely, many “leisure activities” are not leisure in our sense, either because they are undertaken instrumentally—playing squash to lose weight, for instance—or because they are too passive to count as action at all. (Watching television and getting drunk are actions only in the minimal sense that everything we do is an action. They lack the spontaneity and skill characteristic of action in the full sense, and are therefore best viewed as “rest” rather than leisure.) Leisure in our sense is distinguished not by lack of seriousness or strenuousness but by absence of external compulsion. It thus comes close to what Marx called non-alienated labor, which he defined as “a free manifestation of life, hence an enjoyment of life.”27

The importance of leisure has been recognized by civilizations across the world. The three great Abrahamic religions all set aside a weekly Sabbath or day of rest, though this is not quite leisure in our sense, being primarily for the purpose of worship, not free activity.28 Aristotle came closer in his distinction between the “liberal” and “mechanical” arts, the former being those suitable to freemen, the later to workmen and slaves (“We call those arts mechanical which tend to deform the body, and likewise all paid employments, for they absorb and degrade the mind”).29 But it was in Edo Japan that the cultivation of leisure was taken furthest. Deprived by centuries of peace of its traditional occupations, the feudal aristocracy turned instead to the arts of life, transforming everyday activities like bathing and tea drinking into exquisite ceremonies. The French philosopher Alexandre Kojève looked to Japan as the first successful “post-historical” society. We may hope, he wrote, tongue only partially in cheek, “that the recently begun interaction between Japan and the Western World will finally lead not to a rebarbarization of the Japanese but to a ‘Japanization’ of the Westerners.”30

Why is leisure a basic good? The reason is clear: a life without leisure, where everything is done for the sake of something else, is vain indeed. It is a life spent always in preparation, never in actual living. Leisure is the wellspring of higher thought and culture, for it is only when emancipated from the pressure of need that we really look at the world, ponder it in its distinct character and outline. (The ancient Greek for leisure, schole, hints at this connection.) “When we really let our minds rest contemplatively on a rose in bud, on a child at play, on a divine mystery, we are rested and quickened as though by a dreamless sleep,” writes Josef Pieper. “It is in these silent and receptive moments that the soul of man is sometimes visited by an awareness of what holds the world together.”31 Without leisure, there is no genuine, but only that “mechanical,” civilization spoken of by Marcel Labordère. The modern university, with its machinery of “targets” and “outputs,” embodies this grim spectre.

Such a conception of leisure may seem narrowly highbrow, but that is not the intention. All recreations involving active, skilled participation—playing football in the park, making and decorating one’s own furniture, strumming the guitar with friends—are leisure in our sense. What matters is not the intellectual level of the activity, but its character of “purposiveness without purpose.”

What are the economic conditions of leisure? First of all, a reduction of toil, a category that includes not just paid work but all necessary activity, including commuting and housework, and excludes paid work undertaken primarily for its own sake, such as that of the devoted writer or artisan. Where toil occupies so great a portion of one’s day as to leave time only for sleep and rest, leisure is impossible. But a mere reduction of toil is not sufficient for leisure in our sense, as the figure of Keynes’s bored housewife suggests. To live “wisely and agreeably and well” requires not just time but application and taste. It is ironic, if unsurprising, that the old arts of life—conversation, dancing, music-making—are atrophying just when we have most need of them. An economy geared to maximizing marketable output will tend to produce manufactured rather than spontaneous forms of leisure.

Realising the Basic Goods

The role of the state …

If the first goal of the individual is to realize the good life for himself, the first duty of the state is to realize, insofar as lies within its power, the good life for all citizens. (This principle of justice is founded on the good of mutual respect, as discussed above.) The qualification “insofar as lies within its power” is important. Health and friendship lie largely in the lap of fate. Personality, respect and leisure depend partly on individual agency. Still, the state has an important and legitimate role in creating the material conditions under which these and other goods can flourish. Such conditions include not just a certain overall level of national wealth but its just distribution, its wise public expenditure and much more besides. The rest lies in the hands of individuals and civil institutions. To adapt a phrase of Keynes, the state is the trustee not of civilization but of the possibility of civilization.


  • HealthAverage life expectancy in Britain rose by just over seven years from 1974 to 2009. This increase owes little to growth, however. Life expectancy has improved in almost all countries over this period, regardless of growth rates, mainly as a result of advances in medical technology and infrastructure.36 China and Brazil now trail the West by only six or seven years, while Cuba, one of the poorer nations of the world, boasts a life expectancy equal to that of the USA. Moreover, as argued above, mere length of life is a poor index of health, since it tells us nothing about quality. “The good life is surely not measured by its length in years,” wrote an 86-year-old James Lovelock, “but by the intensity of the joy and good consequences of existence.”37
  • health may actually be deteriorating with affluence
    • Alcohol-related deaths, obesity, prescriptions for depression, rise in depression, work-related stress
    • By historical standards, we remain extremely healthy, but the old assurance that this state of affairs would continue in perpetuity is fading


  • Full employment as a goal of macroeconomic policy was abandoned during the Reagan/Thatcher era and has not been reinstated.
  • In Britain and the USA, jobs for life have increasingly been replaced by temporary or open contracts. Job tenure for British men fell 20 percent from 1975 to 1995.
  • At the same time, there has been a marked growth in temporary, especially agency, workers, whose numbers have doubled since 1992
  • These trends are partly structural, an effect of the ongoing shift from industry to services, but they have been exacerbated by policy. Security has been regarded as a legitimate sacrifice to the greater good of growth, not as a basic human need.
  • TODO: What about other aspects, such as crime, war, …?


  • The greatest barrier to mutual respect in most Western nations is the emergence, beginning in the 1970s, of a permanent body of state dependants.* Once shielded by a residue of Christian and social democratic sentiment, “chavs” and “scroungers” are now treated with open contempt in the press and on television. Another barrier to mutual respect is excessive inequality. This destroys respect not just for those at the bottom, but also those at the top, especially if their advantages are perceived as unmerited. Inequality has risen in most Western countries since the 1970s, in Britain and the USA especially, as Chart 12 shows. This trend is partly a function of autonomous social forces, but the slashing of the top rate of income tax under Thatcher and Reagan undoubtedly accentuated it.
  • Finally, the “turbo-capitalism” enshrined in Wall Street and the City of London over the last thirty years has led to a brutalization of working relations. “His BlackBerry and security pass are taken from him by burly men, he has no further access to work email, and five minutes to clear his desk,” runs an article describing the fate of an equity analyst, sacked for taking time off to see his sick wife.43 Such scenes are all too common. Today, high salaries are no security against proletarianization and its attendant humiliations.


  • We have said that the main economic safeguard of personality is property. This might seem to spell good news for Britain, where home ownership rose steadily over the course of the last century and now stands at 68 percent, having fallen from an all-time high of 71 percent in 2003. However, since most property is bought on mortgage, with outright ownership coming only late in life, if at all, its effects are anything but emancipatoryMortgaged property binds its owner to a regular job. It is specifically wealth —that is, an individual’s total assets minus his or her liabilities— that confers freedom to pursue an autonomous plan of life.
  • The overall picture is not encouraging for the advocates of growth at all cost. Despite the doubling of UK per capita income, we possess no more of the basic goods than we did in 1974; in certain respects, we possess less of them. We have chased after superfluities and neglected necessities. This, incidentally, may explain the “flat line” of happiness discussed in Chapter 4, if indeed it is anything more than a statistical artifact. It could be that people sense, correctly, that their lives are objectively no better now than they were then. Jil Matheson, head of the UK Office for National Statistics, has identified the things that matter most for happiness as “health, relationships, work and the environment”—a list that tallies closely with our basic goods.55 Given that our lives have not noticeably improved in these respects since 1974, it is hardly surprising that we do not feel any happier.

Chapter 7:  Exits from the Rat Race