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?
We in the West are once more in the midst of a Great Contraction, the worst since the Great Depression. A great crisis is like an inspection: it exposes the faults of a social system, and it prompts the search for alternatives. The system under inspection is capitalism, and Keynes's essay offers a vantage point from which to consider the future of capitalism. The situation has brought to light two defects in the system, usually obscured by the near-unanimous commitment to growth at almost any cost.
The first defect is moral. The banking crisis has shown yet again that the present system relies on motives of greed and acquisitiveness, which are morally repugnant. It also divides societies into rich and poor, latterly very rich and very poor, justified by some version of the "trickle down" idea. The coexistence of great wealth and great poverty, especially in societies in which there is enough for everyone, offends our sense of justice.
Second, the crisis has exposed capitalism's palpable economic problems. Our financial system is inherently unstable. When it goes wrong, as it did in 2008, we realize how inefficient, wasteful, and painful it can be. Heavily indebted countries are told that the bond markets will not be satisfied until they have liquidated a large fraction of their national incomes. Such periodic collapses of the money-making machine are a great spur to thinking about better ways of life.
Finally, Keynes's essay challenges us to imagine what life after capitalism might look like (for an economic system in which capital no longer accumulates is not capitalism, whatever one might call it). Keynes thought that the motivational basis of capitalism was "an intense appeal to the money-making and money-loving instincts of individuals." He thought that with the coming of plenty, this motivational drive would lose its social approbation; that is, that capitalism would abolish itself when its work was done. But so accustomed have we become to regarding scarcity as the norm that few of us think about what motives and principles of conduct would, or should, prevail in a world of plenty.
So let us imagine that everyone has enough to lead a good life. What is the good life? And what is it not? And what changes in our moral and economic system are needed to realize it? Such questions are seldom asked, because they do not fall neatly into any of the disciplinary boxes that make up modern intellectual life. Philosophers construct systems of perfect justice, unmindful of the messiness of empirical reality. Economists ask how best to satisfy subjective wants, whatever those may be. We need to bring together insights from both disciplines—economics for the sake of its practical influence, philosophy for the sake of its ethical imagination. It's time to revive the old idea of economics as a moral science, a science of human beings in communities, not of interacting robots.
Let's begin by pondering the reasons for the failure of Keynes's prophecy. Why, despite the surprising accuracy of his growth forecasts, are most of us, almost 100 years on, still working about as hard as we were when he wrote his futuristic essay? The answer is that a free-market economy both gives employers the power to dictate hours and terms of work and inflames our innate tendency toward competitive, status-driven consumption. Keynes was well aware of the evils of capitalism but assumed that they would wither away once their work of wealth creation was done. He did not foresee that they might become permanently entrenched, obscuring the very ideal they were initially intended to serve.
Keynes was not alone in thinking that motives bad in themselves might nonetheless be useful. John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx, Herbert Marcuse—even Adam Smith in bolder moments—all granted such motives a positive role as an agent of historical progress. In the language of myth, Western civilization has made its peace with the Devil, in return for which it has been granted hitherto unimaginable resources of knowledge, power, and pleasure. This is, of course, the grand theme of the Faust legend, immortalized by Goethe.
The irony, however, is that now that we have at last achieved abundance, the habits bred into us by capitalism have left us incapable of enjoying it properly. The Devil, it seems, has claimed his reward. Can we evade this fate? Perhaps, but only if we can retrieve from centuries of neglect and distortion the idea of a good life, a life sufficient unto itself. Here we must draw on the rich storehouse of premodern wisdom, Occidental and Oriental.
Opposition to the growth juggernaut has gathered pace in recent years. Growth, say critics, is not only failing to make us happier; it is also environmentally disastrous. Both claims may well be true, but they fail to capture our deeper objection to endless growth, which is that it is senseless. To found our case against growth on the fact that it is damaging to happiness or the environment is to invite our opponents to show that it is not, in fact, damaging in those ways—an invitation they have been quick to take up. The whole argument then disappears down an academic cul-de-sac. The point to keep in mind is that we know, prior to anything scientists or statisticians can tell us, that the unending pursuit of wealth is madness.
In discussing our ideas with friends and acquaintances, we find that several objections have cropped up regularly. The first concerns timing. "Now, of all moments," we are told, "is not the time to be talking about an end to growth. Wouldn't Keynes himself, were he alive, urge us to resume growth as rapidly as possible in order to bring down unemployment and pay off government debt?" We do not dispute this. But we need to distinguish between short-term policies for recovery after the worst depression since the 1930s, and long-term policies for realizing the good life.
In the two years after 2008, world output shrank by 6 percent, and it has only partly regained its previous level. We must at the very least retrieve the output we have lost, because, as the economy is now organized, there is no other way to reduce unemployment and indebtedness, private and public. But we should not let the exigencies of the hour cloud our view of ultimate ends. Keynes's own utopia was penned at the bottom of the Great Depression. "My purpose in this essay," he wrote, "is not to examine the present ... but to disembarrass myself of short views and take wings into the future."
Another query concerns the geographical scope of our analysis. Are we suggesting that nations in which millions remain ill-housed and ill-fed should be content with what they have? Of course not. Our arguments are addressed to that part of the world in which the material conditions of well-being have already been met. In places where they have not been met, growth remains, rightly, a priority. That said, if the developing world carries on developing, it will eventually face our predicament, so it may as well prepare for it in advance. It should not repeat our mistake of becoming so absorbed in the means that it forgets the ends.
The remaining objections cut deeper. "Your ideas," a critic might say, "will have the effect of undermining all initiative, creativity, vision. They are a blueprint for universal idleness." It is sometimes added that our ideas reflect a decadent, "old European" mind-set. This observation comes, unsurprisingly, mostly from Americans.
Let us state firmly that we are not in favor of idleness. What we wish to see more of is leisure, a category that, properly understood, is so far from coinciding with idleness that it approaches its polar opposite. Leisure, in the true, now almost forgotten sense of the word, is activity without extrinsic end, "purposiveness without purpose," as Kant put it. The sculptor engrossed in cutting marble, the teacher intent on imparting a difficult idea, the musician struggling with a score, a scientist exploring the mysteries of space and time—such people have no other aim than to do well what they are doing. They may receive an income for their efforts, but that income is not what motivates them. They are engaged in leisure, not toil.
This is an idealization, of course. In the real world, extrinsic rewards, including financial rewards, are never entirely out of mind. Still, insofar as action proceeds not from necessity but from inclination, insofar as it is spontaneous, not servile and mechanical, toil is at an end and leisure has begun. This—not idleness—is our ideal. It is only our culture's poverty of imagination that leads it to believe that all creativity and innovation—as opposed to that specific kind directed to improving economic processes—needs to be stimulated by money.
"That is all very splendid," our critic might retort, "but it is hardly likely that a reduction of externally motivated activity will lead to an increase of leisure, in your high-flown sense of the term. Slackers like us need the stimulus of money to move us to anything. Without it, our natural laziness comes to the fore, leading not to the good life but to boredom, neurosis, and the bottle. Read a few Russian novels and you will see what I mean."
Such an objection can be met only with a declaration of faith. A universal reduction of work has never been attempted, so we do not know for sure what its consequences would be. But we cannot think them as dire as our critic suggests, or of the central project of modern civilization, to improve the well-being of the people, as empty and vain. If the ultimate end of industry is idleness, if we labor and create merely so that our descendants can snuggle down to an eternity of daytime television, then all progress is, as Orwell put it, "a frantic struggle towards an objective which [we] hope and pray will never be reached." We are in the paradoxical situation of goading ourselves to ever new feats of enterprise, not because we think them worthwhile, but because any activity, however pointless, is better than none. We must believe in the possibility of genuine leisure—otherwise our state is desperate indeed.
Another reflection gives us hope. The image of man as a congenital idler, stirred to action only by the prospect of gain, is unique to the modern age. Economists, in particular, see human beings as beasts of burden who need the stimulus of a carrot or stick to do anything at all. "To satisfy our wants to the utmost with the least effort" is how William Stanley Jevons, a pioneer of modern economic theory, defined the human problem. That was not the ancient view of things. Athens and Rome had citizens who, though economically unproductive, were active to the highest degree—in politics, war, philosophy, and literature. Why not take them, and not the donkey, as our guide?
Of course, Athenian and Roman citizens were schooled from an early age in the wise use of leisure. Our project implies a similar educational effort. We cannot expect a society trained in the servile and mechanical uses of time to become one of free men overnight. But we should not doubt that the task is, in principle, possible. Bertrand Russell, in an essay written just two years after Keynes's effort—a further illustration of the stimulating effects of economic crisis—put the point with his usual clarity:
"It will be said that, while a little leisure is pleasant, men would not know how to fill their days if they had only four hours of work out of the 24. Insofar as this is true in the modern world, it is a condemnation of our civilization; it would not have been true at any earlier period. There was formerly a capacity for lightheartedness and play which has been to some extent inhibited by the cult of efficiency. ... The pleasures of urban populations have become mainly passive: seeing cinemas, watching football matches, listening to the radio, and so on. This results from the fact that their active energies are fully taken up with work; if they had more leisure, they would again enjoy pleasures in which they took an active part."
We might add that it is largely because leisure has lost its true meaning of spontaneous activity and degenerated into passive consumption that we throw ourselves into work as the lesser of two evils. "One must work," wrote Baudelaire in his Intimate Journals, "if not from taste, then at least from despair. For, to reduce everything to a single truth: work is less boring than pleasure."
An additional objection to our ideas takes the form of a qualified defense of moneymaking: True, say our critics, it is not the noblest of human activities, but of the main goals of human striving it is the least harmful. Keynes put it well: "Dangerous human proclivities can be canalized into comparatively harmless channels by the existence of opportunities for moneymaking and private wealth, which, if they cannot be satisfied in this way, may find their outlet in cruelty, the reckless pursuit of personal power and authority, and other forms of self-aggrandizement."
But he added that "it is not necessary for the stimulation of these activities and the satisfaction of these proclivities that the game should be played for such high stakes as at present. Much lower stakes will serve the purpose equally well, as soon as the players are accustomed to them." This perfectly captures our defense. We are not proposing that moneymaking should be banned, as it was in the Soviet Union, but that "the game" should be subject to rules and limitations which do not move society away from the good life.
The last, and deepest, objection to our project concerns its supposedly illiberal character. A liberal state, John Rawls and others have taught us to believe, embodies no positive vision but only such principles as are necessary for people of different tastes and ideals to live together in harmony. To promote, as a matter of public policy, a positive idea of the good life is by definition illiberal, perhaps even totalitarian. This view rests on a thorough misconception of liberalism. Through most of its long history, the liberal tradition was imbued with classical and Christian ideals of dignity, civility, and tolerance. ("Liberal," we should remember, originally designated what was appropriate to a free man, a usage surviving in phrases such as "liberal arts.")
In the 20th century, such prototypical liberals as Keynes, Isaiah Berlin, and Lionel Trilling took it for granted that upholding civilization was among the functions of the state. It is a superficial conception of liberalism that sees it as implying neutrality among different visions of the good. In any case, neutrality is a fiction. A "neutral" state simply hands power to the guardians of capital to manipulate public taste in their own interests.
Perhaps the chief intellectual barrier to realizing the good life for all is the discipline of economics, or rather the deathly orthodoxy that sails under that name in most universities across the world. Economics, says a recent text, studies "how people choose to use limited and scarce resources in attempting to supply unlimited wants." The italicized adjectives are strictly redundant: If wants are unlimited, then resources are by definition limited relative to them, however rich we may be in the absolute sense. We are condemned to dearth, not through want of resources, but by the extravagance of our appetites. As the economist Harry Johnson put it in 1960, "we live in a rich society, which nevertheless in many respects insists on thinking and acting as if it were a poor society." The perspective of poverty, and with it an emphasis on efficiency at all costs, is built into modern economics.
It was not ever thus. Adam Smith, the founder of modern economics, assumed that our inborn desire for improvement would eventually run up against natural and institutional limits, resulting in the achievement of a "stationary state." For Alfred Marshall, Keynes's teacher, economics was the study of the "material prerequisites of well-being," a definition that preserved the Aristotelian and Christian concept of wealth as a means to an end.
After Marshall, however, economics shifted gear. In a classic definition, Lionel Robbins wrote of economics as "the science that studies human behavior as a relationship between ends and scarce means which have alternative uses." Robbins's definition both puts scarcity at the center of economics and brackets out judgments of value. The domain of economics is the study of efficient means to ends, but the economist, qua economist, has nothing to say about those "ends." He assumes only that they will always outstrip the means at our disposal for attaining them, meaning that scarcity is a permanent feature of the human condition.
If scarcity is always with us, then efficiency, the optimal use of scarce resources, and economics, the science that teaches us efficiency, will always be necessary. Yet in any common-sensical view of the matter, scarcity waxes and wanes. We know that famines are periods of extreme scarcity, and that good harvests produce relative plenty. Thomas Malthus understood that when population grows faster than food supplies, scarcity grows; and in the reverse case, it declines. Moreover, scarcity, as most people understand it, has diminished greatly in most societies over the last 200 years. People in rich and even medium-rich countries no longer starve to death. All this implies that the social importance of efficiency has declined, and with it the utility of economics.
The beginning of sanity in this matter is to think of scarcity in relation to needs, not wants. And this is how we do normally think of it. The man with three houses is not thought to be in dire straits, however urgent his desire for a fourth. "He has enough," we say, meaning "enough to meet his needs." Flagrant manifestations of insatiability—such as an uncontrollable desire to collect cats or dollhouses—are widely viewed as pathological, not normal. We are all, in principle, capable of limiting our wants to our needs; the problem is that a competitive, monetized economy puts us under continual pressure to want more and more. The "scarcity" discerned by economists is increasingly an artifact of this pressure. Considered in relation to our vital needs, our state is one not of scarcity but rather of extreme abundance.
The material conditions of the good life already exist, at least in the affluent parts of the world, but the blind pursuit of growth puts the good life continually out of reach. Under such circumstances, the aim of policy and other forms of collective action should be to secure an economic organization that places the good things of life—health, respect, friendship, leisure, and so on—within reach of all. Economic growth should be accepted as a residual, not something to be aimed at.
Over time, such a shift is bound to affect our attitude toward economics. To maximize the efficient use of our time will become less and less important; and therefore "scientific" economics, as it has developed since Robbins, will be demoted from its position as the queen of the social sciences. It can bring us to the threshold of plenty, but must then retire from its oversight of our lives. This is what Keynes had in mind when he looked forward to the day when economists would become as useful as dentists. He always chose his words carefully: It was as dentists, not doctors, that humanity would come to need economists; at the margins of life, not as a continuous, much less controlling, presence.