If somebody loses their job, they sometimes also lose their bearings. A decision is made to take an entirely new direction in life: get out of the rat race, downsize, learn a language, take up ballroom-dancing.
The economic crisis that began in 2008 seems to have unleashed a similar search for meaning among some western intellectuals and economists. But the fundamental assumptions they are questioning are not personal, but political.
Last week, I found myself moderating a grandly-titled seminar on the “Future of Capitalism” at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in Paris. The star turn on the panel was Robert Skidelsky, the biographer of John Maynard Keynes, who has been much in demand over the past two years, as Keynes has come back into fashion.
上周，我在巴黎主持经合组织(OECD)召开的一次主题宏伟的有关“资本主义未来”的研讨会。会上的风头人物是约翰•梅纳德•凯恩斯(John Maynard Keynes)的传记作者罗伯特•斯基德尔斯基(Robert Skidelsky)。这两年来，随着凯恩斯主义再度风行，斯基德尔斯基也颇受欢迎。
Lord Skidelsky has started work on a book to be called How Much is Enough: The Economics of the Good Life. He argues that, over the past 30 years, the western world has become unhealthily pre-occupied with the pursuit of wealth. Lord Skidelsky says that “in almost all religions and moral philosophies, wealth is a means to an end – to live decently and agreeably. After a while the quest for more and more wealth becomes irrational, but our societies are all organised around the pursuit of wealth beyond limit.”
斯基德尔斯基勋爵在着手撰写新书《多少才够：美好生活经济学》(How Much is Enough: The Economics of the Good Life)。他认为，过去30年来，西方社会过度沉迷于追逐财富，已成为一种病态。他说：“在几乎所有宗教和道德哲学里，财富是达到目的——愉快和体面地生活——的一种手段。后来，对财富的追逐变得无理性，整个社会都奉行无止境追逐财富的信念。”
Paris is a good place to try out this sort of argument. Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, has sponsored a commission, featuring two Nobel prize-winning economists, to re-examine ideas of human well-being. The Stiglitz report, published last September, questioned the idea that gross domestic product is an adequate measure of human well-being. It insisted that other aspects of life, such as health, education, family life and the environment, must also be given due weight.
A similar school of thought is gaining strength in Britain. Lord Layard, another titled British economist, has long pushed the idea that public policy should concentrate on the promotion of happiness, rather than the creation of wealth. This sounds mushy but can have some surprisingly practical implications: Lord Layard, for example, has been a driving force behind the British government's goal of making cognitive behaviour therapy more widely available as a treatment for mental illness. More recently, The Spirit Level – a book arguing that more equal societies are happier and more successful – has made a splash in Britain.
在英国，一个类似的思想流派正在发展壮大。另一位拥有爵位的英国经济学家——莱亚德勋爵(Lord Layard)长期倡导以下观点：公共政策应着重于增加人们的幸福，而非创造财富。这种说法听起来软绵绵的，却能够产生某些出人意料的实际影响。例如，莱亚德勋爵是推动英国政府制定以下目标的人物之一：推广认知行为疗法在治疗精神病上的应用。更近些时候，一本叫做《精神层面》(The Spirit Level)的书在英国引起反响，书中提出，越公平的社会，人们越幸福，这个社会也就越成功。
In some ways, lords Skidelsky, Layard and the other happy warriors are obviously right. Research suggests that, once a certain level of comfort has been attained, there is no connection between greater wealth and greater happiness. It is also hard to think of a moral philosopher – not even Adam Smith – who argued that the pursuit of wealth should be an end in itself. Slogans such as “Poverty sucks” and “The one who dies with the most toys wins” are bumper stickers favoured by junior investment bankers, rather than quotes from the great philosophers.
But while taking a more relaxed attitude towards the pursuit of wealth may make sense as a personal philosophy, it is an uncertain guide to public policy. It is relatively easy for the comfortable middle classes to play down the need for economic growth. But absolute poverty still exists, even in western societies, and adjusting to a stagnant national income can be a painful process, as many European countries may soon discover.
It is also clear that for China, now the world's second-largest economy, high rates of growth remain an absolute imperative – both to buy social peace and to drag hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. Even among Indian intellectuals, the Gandhian disdain for materialism is becoming less common, as economists, politicians and a burgeoning middle class embrace the pursuit of wealth as both a personal and a national goal.
It would be a curious irony if the spiritual east embraced the ruthless pursuit of wealth just as the western nations that invented modern capitalism went for a Zen-like repudiation of materialism. If the pursuit of rapid economic growth became a largely Asian passtime, the global balance of power would also change in ways that might make life in the west considerably less comfortable.
For better or worse, it seems unlikely that many western politicians, outside the environmental movement, will repudiate the pursuit of economic growth as one of the goals of public policy. Some have occasionally toyed with this thought. In 1979, US president Jimmy Carter made a speech in which he argued that “owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning”. A year later, he went down to defeat to Ronald Reagan, whose most effective electoral tactic was repeatedly to ask Americans if they felt better off than four years previously.
不论是好是坏，西方政界人士——抛开投身环保运动的人士不谈——大多不太可能否定追求经济增长是公共政策的目标之一。有的人偶尔会玩一把这种思想。1979年，当时的美国总统吉米•卡特(Jimmy Carter)在一次演讲中说：“物质的拥有和使用，不会满足我们追求（人生）意义的渴望。”一年后，他败在了罗纳德•里根(Ronald Reagan)手下，后者最有效的竞选策略是反复问美国人，他们觉得自己的境况比4年前好了吗。
The fact is that people like piling up material goods. Mr Sarkozy may argue that there is more to life than economic growth – but, on a personal level, he seems to be quite fond of flashy watches and holidays on millionaires' yachts.
I, myself, find Lord Skidelsky's arguments fairly persuasive. On the other hand, I am also thinking of buying a 42-inch plasma television to watch this month's World Cup. Doubtless my giant TV will not bring me lasting happiness or spiritual fulfilment. But I think I might buy it all the same.