How Much is Enough by Robert and Edward Sidelsky (Book Review)

Over vacation I read “How Much is Enough?” by Robert and Edward Sidelsky. I highly recommend the book as it goes after a central question that we should all be asking both individually and collectively.

The book starts with an excellent chapter on Keynes‘s now frequently cited essay on “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren.” Their basic diagnosis of where Keynes went wrong is that he assumed a separation of needs and wants, expecting our economy to grow rapidly enough to provide for everyone’s needs. And while that did happen, our wants have proven to be insatiable.

The second chapter titled “The Faustian Bargain” is brilliant. It provides a nutshell intellectual history of how and why we came to abandon the distinction between needs and wants. This chapter alone is worth the price of the entire book, including tracing the evolution of the character of Faust and connecting the Catholic concept of felix culpa to the self-interested individual actors of modern economics.

The third chapter on “The Uses of Wealth” is equally compelling in its broad reach across both time and geography. The fourth chapter makes a compelling case that “Happiness Economics” is at best circular and at worst would support supplying the entire population with drugs.

The first chapter that I found myself disagreeing with was the fifth which asks “Limits to Growth: Natural or Moral?” While it provides a reasonably strong argument that we should not shy away from explicitly valuing nature for itself, I found the sections that were more or less dismissing limits due to pollution and in particular carbon dioxide to conflict directly with my own views. Nothing wrong with that per se except that the logic in this section seem seriously faulty, in particular on non-linear change.

Chapter six, which lays out the Sidelski’s version of “the good life” feels oddly dry in comparison to the rest of the book. Maybe that’s because the seven elements they identify — health, security, respect, personality, harmony with nature, friendship and leisure — come across as more common sense than inspiring. Or it could be that I found myself disagreeing with some of the specific characterizations of these elements, such as confusing security with stability or an overly strong association of friendship with marriage. As in the previous chapter what shines through here are some deeply held moral convictions that are insufficiently investigated.

The seventh and final chapter looks at regulatory changes that might get us away from economic growth for its own sake and towards a “good life” for more and more people. I was happy to see Basic Income Guarantee being one of the proposals. I like the idea of taxes on advertising and financial trading transactions. The other proposal is a generalized consumption tax, which they argue might be more palatable than a progressive income tax. This is an interesting idea that I am planning to spend more time on.

Anybody interested in the history and future of capitalism should read this book, which, really, should be everyone. Forcing one to consider the basic question of “How much is enough?” and providing the intellectual context alone is hugely valuable even if you disagree with or are unmoved by some of the recommendations.

There are tantalizing passages about leisure and its changing conception over time throughout the book. I would have loved to see more on what it would take to return to the more historic concept of leisure as activities that require and develop skills (the book hints at but doesn’t elaborate a need for a different education, which the authors acknowledge in the afterword). I believe that a lot of inspiration could flow exploring what more of that type of leisure could do for humanity.