let us imagine that everyone has enough to lead a good life. What is the good life? And what is it not? And what changes in our moral and economic system are needed to realize it? Such questions are seldom asked, because they do not fall neatly into any of the disciplinary boxes that make up modern intellectual life. Philosophers construct systems of perfect justice, unmindful of the messiness of empirical reality. Economists ask how best to satisfy subjective wants, whatever those may be. We need to bring together insights from both disciplines—economics for the sake of its practical influence, philosophy for the sake of its ethical imagination. It’s time to revive the old idea of economics as a moral science, a science of human beings in communities, not of interacting robots.
Let’s begin by pondering the reasons for the failure of Keynes’s prophecy. Why, despite the surprising accuracy of his growth forecasts, are most of us, almost 100 years on, still working about as hard as we were when he wrote his futuristic essay? The answer is that a free-market economy both gives employers the power to dictate hours and terms of work and inflames our innate tendency toward competitive, status-driven consumption. Keynes was well aware of the evils of capitalism but assumed that they would wither away once their work of wealth creation was done. He did not foresee that they might become permanently entrenched, obscuring the very ideal they were initially intended to serve.
Keynes was not alone in thinking that motives bad in themselves might nonetheless be useful. John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx, Herbert Marcuse—even Adam Smith in bolder moments—all granted such motives a positive role as an agent of historical progress. In the language of myth, Western civilization has made its peace with the Devil, in return for which it has been granted hitherto unimaginable resources of knowledge, power, and pleasure. This is, of course, the grand theme of the Faust legend, immortalized by Goethe.
The irony, however, is that now that we have at last achieved abundance, the habits bred into us by capitalism have left us incapable of enjoying it properly. The Devil, it seems, has claimed his reward. Can we evade this fate? Perhaps, but only if we can retrieve from centuries of neglect and distortion the idea of a good life, a life sufficient unto itself.