Arts and Letters Daily recently linked to this essay by economist John Quiggin arguing that Keynes’s old ideal of the 15-hour working week is both within our economic grasp and a morally desirable ideal that advanced nations should promote. Quiggin, for those of you who are not aware, is a well-known Keynesian economist and ardent social democrat who has blogged prominently at Crooked Timber for a decade. I’ve been reading him for almost as long. In this post, I’m going to criticize the piece on the grounds that its vision of social life is morally impoverished and sectarian
I. Quiggin’s Keynesian Halcyon Days
Quiggin’s article begins with a fascinating trip down memory lane. Quiggin became an economist in the early 1970s, “at a time when revolutionary change still seemed like an imminent possibility.” At this early stage in Quiggin’s life, he was inspired by Keynes’s famous essay, “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren,” (PDF). Keynes saw that utopia was a plausible future. He expected and hoped that the work week would continue to shorten. Quiggin hoped so too, until the sad and destructive rise of “market liberalism” (Quiggin’s derisive term for the sum total of pro-market economic thought that has had some influence over the last fifty years).
Quiggin regales us with the tale of the post-war Keynesian golden age of growth, when “the social democratic welfare state, supported by Keynesian macroeconomic management, had already smoothed many of the sharp edges of economic life.” Economic risk was manageable and the thoughts of the people could turn towards cultural and aesthetic rather than mere economic pursuits. “Anti-materialist” attitudes proliferated.
But market liberalism reversed the shortening of the work week and made people more consumerist. Sadly, unlike in the 1960s, “the values of the market have penetrated ever further into every aspect of our lives.” During the period leading up to the Great Recession “avarice and usury … [were] worshipped on an unimaginable scale.”
The economic turmoil of the 70s brought the utopianism of the 1960s to a halt and led to a resurgence of “neoliberalism, Thatcherism and the Washington Consensus” the evil “market liberalism” which has as its central theoretical tenet “the efficient markets hypothesis.” The core “ideology” of market liberalism combined the efficient market hypothesis with the idea that “the best way to achieve prosperity for all is to let the rich get richer” and that all would benefit via the notorious “trickle-down.”
This view of the world leads us away from Keynes’s dream because market liberals believe that the “mega-fortunes piled up in speculative financial markets … are essential to achieve and maintain decent living standards for the rest of us.” Market liberalism thus makes us more money-driven despite the fact that it consists in dead or “undead” ideas (as Quiggin argues in his recent book, Zombie Economics). Because market liberalism is so perverse, it needs not merely economic but moral critique.
Keynes thought the post-scarcity age would come too soon. Instead, we need to add another 60 years to get a sufficient increase of wealth to where no one in the world needs work a long week or needs to suffer from great financial risk. Further, we need some new inventions to help us reduce the amount of housework we need to do.
There is a work inequality that present developed English-speaking nations face, where the rich work long hours and the poor cannot find as much work as they would like. Work should be more evenly distributed, so the poor have better incomes and the rich have more leisure time. But we can only reach this equality if we can substantially reduce the “centrality of market work to the achievement of a good life” and with a “substantial reduction in the total hours of work.”
II. Quiggin’s Social Democratic Vision
How do we achieve Quiggin’s preferred social arrangement? First, we go “back to the social democratic agenda associated with postwar Keynesianism.” The social democratic agenda includes a “guaranteed minimum income, more generous parental leave and expanded provision of health, education and other social services.” If we implement this program, we can produce a society where “even those who did not work, whether by choice or incapacity, could enjoy a decent, if modest, lifestyle, and where the benefits of technological progress were devoted to improving the quality of life rather than providing more material goods and services.” With such social priorities, societies could allocate investment “according to judgments of social need rather than market signals of price and profit” which would thankfully “reduce the need for a large and highly rewarded financial sector.”
In the post-scarcity society, everyone will be insulated fully from dangerous economic risk, even those who choose to do nothing but surf all day so long (as they are prepared to perform a small number of public services. People would be free to contribute “according to their abilities” and receive enough from society to meet their basic needs).
More importantly, Quiggin ends his piece asking whether we would want to live in such a society. Or will we always be so corrupt that we must chase “after money to buy more and better things”? He sees some hopeful signs in the more frugal consumer behaviors following the great recession, where conspicuous consumption is less popular and people buy smaller homes and cars.
And in any case, we don’t have a good alternative to Keynesian social democracy, for market liberalism “has failed on its own terms.” During the reign of market liberalism, most households in the developed world experienced less income growth than in the Keynesian golden age.
III. Quiggin’s Vision is Morally Impoverished Sectarianism
More than anyone in the econoblogosphere, other than Paul Krugman, Quiggin has fought the decline of classical Keynesian and social democratic economic and moral ideals. He has poured heart and soul into outlining a way to return to glory and move beyond. But I think his vision for social life in the developed world is deeply morally impoverished even setting aside his (in my view incorrect) economic beliefs. Let me explain.
I think an ideal is objectionably sectarian when it requires the use of coercion against people who have fundamentally distinct but reasonable worldviews and philosophical commitments. Quiggin seems to think that people who spend all of their time working and accumulating wealth suffer from a kind of false consciousness. In reality, their good would be better promoted if they were to work much less and be less concerned with becoming wealthy.
What Quiggin ignores is the possibility that people in liberal democratic societies work hard and seek high incomes because doing so promotes and embodies personal, moral and religious ideals different than those advocated by secular social democrats like Quiggin. Keynes’s vision of a leisurely life makes sense for a British aristocrat. Of course he’d think such a life was best for all. But one important feature of economic life in industrialized democracies is that while some people could work less, they prefer to work more.
There are a great many reasons why. Some people may accumulate wealth because they want to be beloved philanthropists or because they want to provide the very best lives they can for their families. They may accumulate wealth as the side effect of performing a highly valued service that they find intrinsically rewarding. They may work hard simply because they enjoy working more than leisure or because they think that hard work is more morally virtuous than leisure. A certain style of Protestant might hold that hard work and flourishing in one’s vocation is what God will for his life. He blesses the successful and righteous with riches that they can use to support their churches or charitable causes. Other people of faith may get great fulfillment from exercising their God-given talents.
So we can see many people have deeply moral and philosophical reasons for working as long as they do. Arguably with the decline of manufacturing and agriculture and the rise of service jobs and work in the “knowledge economy,” much work in industrial democracies is less onerous and more customizable than in the past. Some people are able to work at a job that they have dreamed of and so they may well pour sixty, seventy or eighty hours a week into it.
The moral advantage of a market liberal society over a social democratic society is that it does not discourage these forms of life. It allows people to pursue their own work in their own way, giving people the freedom to work less for less pay or to work more for more pay. That is one reason it is essential to protect economic liberties, in order to ensure that people have the right to build the life of their choosing.
Quiggin’s vision of a deeply interventionist and redistributive state would deliberately frustrate the aims of those whose worldviews include hard work and great benefits. His preferred set of institutions would blunt and disincentivize such jobs by design and reward those who prefer extended amounts of leisure. That’s why his vision of social life is sectarian and, I think, morally unattractive, because it not only condescends to those who live to work but it would use state power to actively discourage these forms of life and encourage alternative forms of life that many of these people find worthy of moral condemnation.
In the end, Quiggin is quite similar to mild Catholic establishmentarians in Latin American countries, and European Catholic nations like Spain and Italy. They wish to have the state promote a certain version of the good life by sponsoring certain moral and spiritual ideals via state policy and power, without banning other religions or points of view. Quiggin’s secular vision is no different, no less authoritarian and no more worthy of power.
I suspect Quiggin thinks that a market liberal society is just as authoritarian and sectarian than Keynesian social democracy, if not moreso. After all, market liberal societies reward the hard working at the expense of the leisurely. But in reality it does no such thing. A market liberal society gives people many options. Just because it pays those who work hard and creatively enormous sums does not mean that others are less free to live a more leisurely life.
Of course, Quiggin can trot out the old hard left claim that in a market liberal society people must work to live and have basic amenities, but we do not need a social democratic state to ameliorate this condition, just a modest basic income (which of course Crooked Timber and BHL have argued about before!).
So with that, I think it is fair to conclude that Quiggin’s Keynesian vision is mistaken.