How Much Is Enough? Part 1

I’ve been reading a fascinating book of late by just this title: How Much is Enough?: Money and the Good Life by Robert and Edward Skidelsky. This team of a father who is a political economist and son who is a philosopher has shed some very helpful light on my questions about money, happiness, and the Christian life.

While I’m only about a third of the way through the book, one very interesting discovery for me has been to learn that the first proponents of capitalism actually viewed it not as the salvation of humankind but as a necessary evil to be endured until humanity evolved. I found this incredibly interesting, particularly given the political rhetoric in recent decades detailing the triumphs of capitalism and extolling the virtues of living in an “ownership society.”

Why did persons like Adam Smith, author of The Wealth of Nations and granddaddy of capitalism, think it was evil? Because he and others believed that capitalism played upon our baser instincts to accumulate, hoard, and amass wealth for it’s own sake. In short, capitalism feeds our predisposition to look out for ourselves above all else. Yet while they believed capitalism appeals to our basic sense of avarice, they felt that was compensated for by the fact that capitalism also yields benefits for the larger society in which individuals operated. That is, over time the industry sparked by a desire for personal gain created an economy that enabled many to benefit. In this way, personal greed would be guided “by an invisible hand” – Smith’s trademark saying – to create a better society. And, indeed, capitalism has led to the greatest creation and distribution of wealth that history has seen.

Despite these benefits, however, Smith and others imagined that eventually capitalism would run its course, that capitalist industries would grow to maximum efficiency, and that one day capitalist economies would supply all of humanity’s basic needs, bringing relative equality to the masses and the end of a system based on human avarice. Indeed, as recently as the 1930s John Maynard Keynes, perhaps the most important economist of the twentieth century, predicted that within a hundred years most basic needs would be met, the workweek would shrink to about 15 hours a week, and most people would be free to pursue cultural rather than merely economic advancement.

So what happened? According to the Skidelskies, these economists underestimated capitalism’s creative ability to manufacture an insatiable desire for commercial goods whether we need them or not. Indeed, capitalism’s ability to substitute “want” for “need” and then create an unending list of “wants” has perpetuated its growth. And, lest we wonder how that is manifested in our own time, consider that the consumer spending portion of the Gross Domestic Product has grown from around 60% of GDP a generation ago to more than 70% today. Given that no one imagines our collective needs have grown that much in a generation, it seems clear that increasingly our economy is fed by consumers satisfying their individual wants.

But that’s just the first achievement of capitalism. The second is to take what was once considered a vice – insatiable greed – and turn it into a virtue. If this sounds at all familiar, you might be remembering Michael Douglas’ performance as Gordon Gekko and his famous “greed is good” speech in the 1987 film Wall Street. I’ve put the clip below for you to watch:

I’ll take up the question of what we can do in a culture that has glorified – at least prior to the recent Wall Street collapse – greed later, but for now I’m curious how this strikes you. Is greed good? Is it a necessary evil? Or is it just evil? And do we believe we have enough? And I don’t just mean intellectually. I can look around my house and recognize that in every possible way I have enough, actually more than enough. But that doesn’t stop me from regular $20-40 Target runs for stuff I don’t necessarily need or from daydreaming about my next laptop or car. So what I’m really interested in is your experience with not just thinking you have enough, but acting as if you do? Finally, if you and I believed that we had enough – that is, really stopped our slightly insane and lifelong spending spree, what might we do with all the money that is left over? What good cause could we support, what greatdeed might we accomplish?

Thanks, as always, for reading, thinking, and responding.

Notes: 1) If you are receiving this post by email, you may need to click here to watch this video. 2) If you want to watch the full 4 minute version of Gekko’s Wall Street speech, you can find it here (complete, fittingly enough, with a banner ad at the bottom 🙂 ).