Robert and Edward Skidelsky’s book, How Much Is Enough?, explores the diminishing returns on greater and greater wealth and examines capitalism’s limits.
Defenders of capitalism have always recognized that it’s a system with moral flaws, but they have regarded such flaws as the price of progress. Keynes was typical in this respect. In the essay, “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren,” he writes: “For at least another hundred years we must pretend to ourselves and to everyone else that fair is foul and foul is fair”—he knew his Shakespeare—”for foul is useful and fair is not. Avarice and usury and precaution must be our gods for a little longer, for only they can lead us out of the tunnel of economic necessity into the sunlight.”
To me, it is clear that capitalism, left to itself, will carry on endlessly and pointlessly – pointlessly because it never asks the question, “What is this for, what’s it all about?” As a gentle nation, our passions must be just, measured and continuous. No nation can last that as a money-making mob: it cannot with impunity –with existence- go on despising science, despising nature, despising compassion, and concentrate its soul on money. Do you think these are harsh or wild words? How much do you think the contents of the bookshelves of the all the Universities in the world, public and private, would fetch as compared with the contents of it petroleum reserves? What position does our expenditure on science compare with our expenditure on luxury? All these virtues we nationally despise.
We have despised Nature; which is to say, all the deep and sacred sensations of natural scenery. There is no parcel left of land which we have not trampled coal ashes into, nor foreign cities not consumed by the white leprosy of new hotels and the convulsive hiccough of self-satisfaction. We have despised science. What! You say, “are we not foremost in all discovery? Yes; but do you suppose that is national work? That work is all done in spite of the nation; by private people’s zeal and money. We are glad enough, to make our profit of science; we snap up anything in the way of a scientific bone that has meat on it, eagerly enough; but if a scientific man comes to us for a bone or a crust to us, that is another story. We call ourselves a “rich” nation and we are filthy and foolish enough to thumb out funding almost exclusively to applied science. If someone tells us where the oil is or how to get it easier, we understand the use in that; but is the accident of his having found out how to employ himself useful any credit to us?
We pour our whole energy into the false business of money-making; without any true emotion. All this is supported by the “science” of the modern political economist, teaching covetousness instead of truth. What an absurd idea it seems, put fairly in words, that the wealth of civilized nations should ever come to support science instead of capitalism!
Christianity, the religion of unachievement is the part of the West’s check on the necessary amoralism of the market. However, to me it seems this has been forgotten and is now reduced to Paul Ryan’s love of Ayn Rand or the “Prosperity Gospel” and Christianism has all but internalized capitalism as the end rather than the means of human flourishing. Meanwhile, we are destroying the planet in search for “more” and “more”. Are we happier now? Will we ever be if this materialism is our primary source of values?
There is only one cure – and that is public education, directed to make people thoughtful, merciful, and just. We talk daily about improving education, which will lead to “advancement in life”; this is all we pray for. We never seek, so far as I can see, an education which is good in itself. No single business can be blamed; it’s the economic foundation which has created the problem.
In my next posting I will examine what I believe to be the best possible economic and environmental solution, one which will, hopefully, put and end to the economy versus environment myth: Environmental Keynesianism.