How far removed are we from connecting a successful life with the ability to enjoy it?
It can be a painful question, one that seems like an assault on capitalism. But you would think that capitalism could withstand a vigorous debate on its ultimate purpose. As this essay In Praise of Leisure points out, it's a subject the great economist John Maynard Keynes was willing to contemplate even in 1930.
Imagine a world in which most people worked only 15 hours a week. They would be paid as much as, or even more than, they now are, because the fruits of their labor would be distributed more evenly across society. Leisure would occupy far more of their waking hours than work. It was exactly this prospect that John Maynard Keynes conjured up in a little essay published in 1930 called "Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren." Its thesis was simple. As technological progress made possible an increase in the output of goods per hour worked, people would have to work less and less to satisfy their needs, until in the end they would have to work hardly at all. Then, Keynes wrote, "for the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem—how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well." He thought this condition might be reached in about 100 years—that is, by 2030.
Given when it was written, it is not surprising that Keynes's futuristic essay was ignored. The world had much more urgent problems to attend to, including getting out of the Great Depression. And Keynes himself never explicitly reverted to his vision, though the dream of a workless future was always there in the background of his thinking. Indeed, it was as a theorist of short-term unemployment, not of long-run economic progress, that Keynes achieved world fame, with his great book, The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money. Nevertheless, there are good reasons for returning to the questions Keynes raised, then dropped.
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. Making money cannot be the permanent business of humanity, for the simple reason that there is nothing to do with money except spend it. And we cannot just go on spending. There will come a point when we will be satiated or disgusted or both. Or will we?
How much of the ability to make a distinction between leisure and idleness has to do with a knowledge of the liberal arts? A great deal, I would say. This is one reason why the liberal arts can fall under assault in an age where value and return-on-investment are strictly correlated to higher education. Though you can surely use them this way, the liberal arts, thankfully, are not confined to monetary pursuits. We can learn to use them well and profit, yes; but they are actually designed for human achievements in pursuit of civilization, and this is an important point. As the authors point out, the conceit of scarcity at the center of economics is predicated on an inability to discern between needs and wants. This is not apostacy, but a touchdown for the human side.
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