Capitalism, liberalism, and the good life

I enjoyed this review by philosopher Gary Gutting of Robert and Edward Skidelsky’s How Much Is Enough? (I haven’t read the book.) The Skidelskys, according to Gutting, argue that, under capitalism, we find ourselves with relative material abundance but without enough time to pursue “intangibles such as love, friendship, beauty, and virtue”–which are essential ingredients of a good life. Moreover, capitalism, with its seemingly insatiable drive toward increased production and profit, creates in us the desires for more and better things, and these desires crowd out our desires to pursue the intangible “higher goods.” They say we need to redirect our society toward the good life with measures to curb these pernicious effects of capitalism–such as a guaranteed basic income and a consumption tax on luxury goods.

This isn’t an unfamiliar line of argument, but Gutting goes on to consider two types of objections. First, utilitarians might argue that the good life consists in maximizing subjective states of satisfaction (i.e., happiness as commonly understood), not the attainment of objective goods. Appealing to Robert Nozick’s “experience machine” thought experiment, Gutting replies that it’s implausible to think that subjective satisfaction is sufficient for a good life–though he agrees it’s probably necessary. And he thinks the Sidelskys could easily take subjective satisfaction on board as part of their account of the good life.

More difficulty for the Sidelskys’ argument is posed, Gutting thinks, by liberalism’s insistence on personal autonomy and its demand that the state be officially neutral among competing views about what constitutes a good life. Liberal societies, according to this view, shouldn’t try to impose a specific vision of the good life as a matter of public policy. So the Sidelskys’ proposals seem like non-starters because they would violate the liberal commitment to anti-paternalism.

Gutting thinks the liberal objection can be met by a renewed emphasis on liberal education. Such an education exposes us to different ways of living and can act as a counterweight to the acquisitiveness fostered by capitalist society. This would provide, Gutting hopes, a “bottom-up” rather than a “top-down” corrective to the problems the Sidelskys identify:

There is a risk that free citizens educated in this way will not arrive at the truth we have in mind. They may, free and informed, choose the material illusions of capitalism. But, in a democracy, an ideal of the good life has no force unless the people’s will sustains it. Liberally educated consumers—and voters—are our only hope of subordinating capitalism to a humane vision of the good life.

While this is good as far as it goes, I think Gutting may be underestimating the resources political liberalism has for addressing these concerns. Gutting says that the “basic goods” advocated by the Sidelksys, such as “health, security, respect, personal freedom …, harmony with nature, friendship, and leisure” differ from the “primary goods” that liberals advocate as prerequisites for effective individual freedom to pursue a variety of lifestyles. But I wonder if the Sidelskys’ list is really at odds with what liberals like John Rawls or Martha Nussbaum (or for that matter sophisticated utilitarians) would advocate at the level of public policy.

People sometimes underestimate how radical the implications are of what philosophical liberals advocate. If we really took seriously the requirement to ensure equal access to primary goods (Rawls) or capabilities for functioning (Nussbaum), or equal consideration of interests (utilitarianism), I think American society would look a lot different. It would be much more economically egalitarian and probably as a result would produce fewer luxury goods. Besides, on any reasonable, non-totalitarian view of public policy, there has to be some scope for people to make choices that depart from some officially preferred vision of the good life. Indeed, as liberals from J.S. Mill onward have argued, such freedom is an indispensable ingredient of the good life. On a practical level, then, I’m not sure how much the Sidelskys’ desired end-state differs from that of liberalism.


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