The Skidelskys and the ‘Age of Consumption’

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July 8, 2012 by galudwig

Some things just rub me the wrong way. Many of these things involve expert economists who prescribe a certain way of living for everyone else and propose to use force to make everyone follow this vision. A good example of such disguised authoritarianism is the recent article of the Skidelskys on the subject of consumption.

Enough is Enough?

Robert and Edward Skidelsky recently wrote a book on what they see as the greatest challenge of Western society: overcoming our ‘addiction’ to consumption and embracing ‘the good life’.

Their article in the Financial Times contains ideas that are perfectly in line with the zeitgeist, unfortunately. A quick summary of their views:

  • Every economy goes through three distinct phases of development. Western society in particular is stuck in phase 2 (consumption) and refuses to evolve to the final economic stage (abundance).
  • Although we should stop consume (and work) less, we don’t. Against better judgment, we refuse to start ‘living the good life’.
  • This leads to unhappiness and overconsumption. To solve this problem, we need to change our behavior. The government can help us in this respect in a number of ways.

‘Society’ Is Not An Acting Entity

Underpinning the entire world view of the Skidelskys, and many others who are like them, is a grand vision, which should act as a blueprint for the whole of society. But this vision is a recipe for disaster, and not even an original or persuasive one.

According to the Skidelskys (and many other economists), economies go through a series of phases. In the first stage, ‘society’ supposedly saves a large part of ‘its’ income to invest in capital equipment and in the second, it consumes more. In the third stage, consumer goods are abundant and people start ‘swapping greater consumption for greater leisure’.

This is complete and utter nonsense. ‘Society’ is not an acting entity. Only the humans that comprise it are. At any point in history and in the future, every society and every national economy has consisted and will consist of individuals who are in one or more of the different ‘stages’.

According to the Skidelskys, we are currently in the second stage, but obviously, we can only consume what has first been produced. Capital investment on the part of enterprising individuals is still necessary in order for the rest of us to consume more, and the same is true for when some want to work less and enjoy more leisure time (another process which has been going on for centuries, I might add).

Arrogant Know-it-Alls Telling Us What To Do

After declaring that ‘society’ must progress towards more leisure time and less consumption, the Skidelskys tell us what is keeping us. For one thing, we have to keep working because

the quality of goods, which stimulates the appetite for serial consumption, [keep improving] and [this] keeps up the hours of work.

Ah yes! If only the quality of consumer goods would not improve, life would be so much better, right? People don’t know what is good for them anyway:

Many improvements are negligible and, even when positive, consumers are constantly seduced by advertisers into over-estimating their benefits

These and other standard arguments against consumption are just ways for would-be dictators to tell us that we are not living our lives according to the plan that they have in mind. Think I’m going too far? Think again.

If They Won’t Listen, Force Them

In the third part of their article, the Skidelskys share how their vision for a better world, where people consume less, work less and live a happy life, can be achieved: with the help of the coercive powers of government.

The ‘measures we can take collectively to nudge us off the consumption treadmill’ sound benign: improve job security, guarantee jobs for all and a basic income, reduce the pressure to consume. How nice!

But what they are actually suggesting is:

  • forbid people to work as much as they want by ‘reducing the maximum allowable hours of work for most occupations’
  • disincentivize work by guaranteeing a basic income for all (which they say is ‘precisely its merit in a society which should be working less and enjoying life more’)
  • put limits on the freedom on advertisers
  • increase taxes on consumption (‘with a top bracket of, say, 75 per cent’)

So not only are we consumers too stupid to know what ‘society’ really needs, we have to be forced to change our behavior. Only then will we be ever be virtuous enough to comply with the high standards of these intellectuals.

But should it really be up to some self-declared experts to make the rest of us conform to a preconceived plan of theirs, whether ‘society’, meaning you and I, want to or not?

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One thought on “The Skidelskys and the ‘Age of Consumption’

  1. Excellent analysis, sir.

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