Robert and Edward Skidelsky
New York Times
| Friday, August 31, 2012
To the Editor:
Richard A. Posner’s critical review of our book, “How Much Is Enough?: Money and the Good Life” (Aug. 19), hinges on one argument. He says that if, as we suggest, people in rich societies (and we are talking about rich societies) worked 20 hours a week on average rather than 40, they would be too poor to enjoy the extra leisure. All they would do is “brawl, steal, overeat, drink and sleep late.” To retain its appeal, leisure must be filled with consumption goods, and that means we must work long hours in order to afford these goods.
Posner claims to know what people want, especially Americans. Europeans apparently want something different, since most of them work fewer hours on average than Americans. Had Posner’s foreign travel taken him farther afield than Oxford, he would have noticed that the material conditions of the French, the Germans and the Dutch are not notably shabbier than those in Chicago. Nor is he an infallible guide to what Americans want. In discussing their preferences, he ignores the fact that 50 million Americans live below the poverty line and that Americans are subject to an unparalleled advertising bombardment.
As Posner acknowledges, we are not making a claim about what people actually want but about the “good life,” one that is “worthy of desire, not just one that is widely desired.” Our own moral intuition tells us that the most valuable form of leisure is one in which our faculties are actively engaged. This certainly requires consumption, but not consumption without end.
In short, Posner’s review makes disputable assertions about what people actually want, without engaging in the moral question of what is good, which is the subject of our book.