Thursday, October 18, 2012

David Gordon Takes on the Skidelsky Father-Son Team

David writes:

Robert Skidelsky is best known for his three-volume biography of Lord Keynes, and his son Edward is a philosopher who has written an excellent book on Ernst Cassirer. How Much Is Enough? contains valuable discussions of happiness research in economics and of global warming, as well as a capsule history of a good deal of both Western and Asian intellectual history; but unfortunately the book is a disappointment. It rehashes stale complaints against the free market, and its policy proposals have sinister implications...

Skidelsky père et fils have...a drastic program, but, strangely, they fail to grasp the nature of their own proposals. In what we may call oblivious paternalism, they present their own measures to reshape people's lives as fully consistent with respect for freedom...

The authors, in dulcet tones, act as if they were offering mild suggestions designed to help people to a better life; but the reality is otherwise. In their preferred scheme of things, advertising would be strongly restricted....

In sum, because people spend too much money on consumer goods, they do not lead good lives. Instead, they should serve the world's poor in order to attain lives of fulfillment. Evidently, the authors have arrived at, however unintentionally, an antithesis to the rational selfishness of Ayn Rand.

Why do the Skidelskys object to the way people choose to spend their own money? In their view, present-day consumers ignore ancient wisdom, both Western and Eastern. The way to a good life, premodern philosophy taught, does not lie in a quest for money for its own sake. Rather, money is just a tool, and we must be satisfied with "enough" material goods, rather than constantly strive to amass more of them...

The Skidelskys wring their hands in horror over lavish consumer spending, but they offer little reason to think that such spending impedes living a good life. To say that an abundance of goods is not required for a good life does not suffice.

Further, even if they were right about the nature of the good life, why should the state endeavor to "persuade" people to do what is supposed to be good for them? Even if there is some way to distinguish between people's wants and what they really need, why should this concern the state? ...

Perhaps, though, their response is to be found in their claim that the state cannot be neutral about conceptions of the good life: this, they think, is a delusion of modern liberals like Rawls. But why can't it be neutral? Suppose it simply refrains from trying to suggest to people how they spend their money. What is this but neutrality?

No one could suggest that the Skidelskys are neutral. They say that
the capitalist system in our part of the world is entering its degenerative phase. The chief sign of this is the dominance of finance, in love with itself but increasingly bereft of useful things to do. The Anglo-American version of individualistic capitalism is kept going largely for the benefit of a predatory plutocracy, whose members cream off the richest prizes while justifying their predation in the language of freedom and globalization. (p. 181)
This might have come straight out of the British Fascist Sir Oswald Mosley, the subject of a sympathetic biography by the senior author of How Much Is Enough?

David's full review is here.

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