To retain — or regain — our dignity as human beings, these authors claim, we must liberate ourselves from the mantra of money and growth and instead think more about the proper uses to which to put our wealth and energy. We should learn to cherish leisure again: meaningful, but not money-related, activity. We ought to rediscover the good life. Right. Up on their moral high ground, however, Skidelsky & Son persist in outright denial of an essential conceptual problem. The trouble with the notion of the good life is that there is no one-size-fits-all definition of just what it means and consists of. We may have opinions, intuitions, learned theories, visions, recommendations — but no possible universal objective standard. Even the Skidelskys, drawing on every philosophical source they can get hold of — from Aristotle, Marx, Keynes and Marcuse to Catholic social thought — cannot think of any more compelling justification of the general norm for the good life than to say that since it is realised in community with others, its criteria cannot be a matter of individual choice. That's a perfect circle.
The Skidelskys produce a whole list of basic goods that constitute the good life as they see it: health, security, respect, personality (which in their view leads both to the right to a private sphere and to redistribution of property), friendship, leisure and harmony with nature. Not only are these items taken to be universal needs, but ends in themselves as well.
The argument is by no means religious. It is Aristotelian, based on a notion of natural law — and thus axiomatic. It is not a very large step from there to imposing a lifestyle on other people. Such intrusiveness cannot be avoided by paying lip-service to the idea of liberty. Calling one's version of paternalism "non-coercive", as the Skidelskys self-consciously rush to do, is not enough. These days, the "road to serfdom" that Friedrich Hayek famously feared to see Western civilisation embark on in the 1940s is paved with the good intentions of a fast-growing group of libertarian paternalists. And the self-appointed messiahs who show us the way along this road are clothed in nannies' uniforms.
The policy recommendations that flow from the Skidelskys are as old as they are proven recipes for disaster: ever more government influence, massive income redistribution, a basic wage, progressive consumer taxes, a slower economic integration of the world. Some ghosts continue to haunt us. The Skidelskys deserve credit for thoroughly dismantling "happiness economics", even though they express sympathy with the aims of the leading figures in this field. But measurement problems abound and the concept of happiness itself is empty. "Happiness is not a proper goal of policy, quite apart from any problems of measurement, for the simple reason that it is not necessarily good," they write. And for the even simpler reason, they should add, that it is a highly personal thing.
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