Things were once simpler. The Victorian economist Alfred Marshall reckoned the needs of a "thinking man" to be £500 a year – a generally accepted figure. In George Orwell's snobby Edwardian prep school, £4,000 a year was the magic sum needed to belong to "the real top crust, the people in the country houses". Sound money and stable class expectations combined to give such figures a spurious reality. In this world, acquisition was a process with an end-point, or several end-points at varying levels of affluence. Once you'd hit the designated mark, you'd made it. You had enough, as the phrase went, to live as a gentleman.
This way of thinking goes back a long way. Ancient philosophy aimed to wean people from insatiability by reminding them of their real needs. "If you have a garden and a library," wrote Cicero, "you want for nothing." Cicero's prescription was not quite as modest as it sounds; his "garden" would have been a small estate, complete with slaves to work it. Others set the bar lower. But all agreed that needs existed, and that wisdom lay in working no harder than was necessary to meet them. To continue accumulating beyond this point seemed a kind of madness.
Today, the idea of the good life and its attendant needs has vanished from public discussion, leaving no barrier to the endless expansion of appetite. Acquisition no longer has a natural, built-in limit, only the ever-shifting standard of "the Jones's". (I want your Fiat, you want his Porsche, and so on all the way up.) This dynamic is amplified by advertising – "the organised creation of dissatisfaction", as it has aptly been called. But it would be with us in any event. Without a shared understanding of the human good, what alternative have we to the competitive escalation of wants?
In our new book, How Much is Enough?, my father Robert and I try to rescue the idea of the good life from the snobbery that has so often disfigured it. We identify a set of "basic goods" integral to human happiness: health, leisure, respect, friendship and others. To enjoy these goods is to have "enough"; to lack them is to be poor indeed. The book is first and foremost a call to individuals to remember what matters in life. But it is also a call to governments to create conditions favourable to simpler, less acquisitive modes of living. The state has a role to play in making it easier for us to live well rather than badly, though how we respond to its prompting is of course up to us.
These are deeply unfashionable ideas. Conventional wisdom holds that each individual defines the good life for himself, according to his own tastes and convictions. All lifestyles are equal, provided they do not intrude on other lifestyles. To privilege any one is to commit the cardinal sin of "paternalism". This set of ideas has come to define respectable opinion on both left and right. It is especially well entrenched in the economics profession, where it amounts to an orthodoxy. "Nothing in economics so quickly marks an individual as incompetently trained," wrote JK Galbraith, "as a disposition to remark on the legitimacy of the desire for more food and the frivolity of the desire for a more elaborate car." Given moral uncertainty, argue economists, the state's attitude must be one of strict neutrality.
Neutrality, however, is a myth. A state that is "neutral" between the desire for more food and the desire for a more elaborate car simply perpetuates the logic of insatiability. It surrenders initiative to the business class, whose interest is always to kindle new appetites. Of course, individuals under capitalism are free to "drop out" or "downsize"; some actually do. But the system is weighted against them. Not only are those wanting to work fewer hours hard-pressed to find employers willing to take them on (it's always cheaper for companies to employ a few full-time staff than an army of part-timers), but the growth of job insecurity and inequality keeps up the pressure to secure a footing, however modest, on the consumption ladder. Individuals may choose how to allocate their time between work and leisure; but their choices take place within a system that puts a premium on the continuous accumulation of useless products.
The state, then, should drop the mask of neutrality and come out in favour of the good life. What, after all, do human beings need? The answer is not hard to seek. Human beings need healthy bodies and unfettered minds. They need love, security to plan and innovate, private spaces to "be themselves", and time to do as they please, not as they must. They do not need sushi boxes and pre-washed salad leaves. An economic system geared to the production of baubles and gadgets leads us away from the good life, not towards it.