Chapter Two of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Utility looks at what writers have said in the past about the links between the good life, income and institutions.
There was a widespread concern in the seventeenth century Dutch Republic that the country had too much wealth, and was having too jolly a time, for its own good. ‘It too often happens that riches bring self-indulgence, and superfluity of pleasures produces flabbiness as we can see in wealthy regions and cities,’ warned Calvin. The Dutch Republic was the richest country in the World at the time. Nonetheless, this fear of excess might seem strange to observers today given that the average income in the Republic was around $2,100 –approximately the same income as modern-day Lesotho, or somewhere around one thirteenth the average income per capita of the US in 2000. This is but one example of concerns about an excess of plenty, an embarrassment of riches, that considerably predates modern economic growth.
While adequate food, shelter and health followed by a peaceful death has long been an element of the good life, from early in Western writing it appears that such problems were considered significant for only a minority of people, and more income was not seen as the answer to those problems. Indeed, poverty has long been described in terms of a social condition rather than a lack of animal needs. By the eighteenth century, when annual UK income per capita was somewhere around $2,000, Adam Smith argued that the rich, by employing the poor ‘for their own vain and insatiable desires…make nearly the same distribution of the necessities of life … had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants.’ And necessities for Smith meant ‘not only those things which nature, but those things which the established rules of decency have rendered necessary.’ Indeed, he argued for the creation of a minimum wage set at a level considerably above brute subsistence to ensure that the poor could afford social necessities required to avoid social stigma. For example, in England, one could not go out in public barefoot without embarrassment, so the minimum wage should be set high enough to allow for the purchase of shoes. (In Scotland, where wandering around barefoot was common, the minimum wage could be set lower, argued Smith.)
Partly as a result of the fact that low average incomes were not seen as a barrier to the good life, the idea that all could be happy on this earth considerably predates the Industrial Revolution. Darrin McMahon notes an explosion of works on the subject of achieving earthly happiness in the final two decades of the seventeenth century which suggested a wide range of different approaches (including, on the side of the rock, temperance and, on the side of the hard place, the consumption of ‘wine of English grapes’). By the eighteenth century, Diderot’s Encyclopedia was suggesting all people had a right to happiness.
It was institutional, not economic change that was considered the key to greater happiness. Thomas More’s Utopia is one example. The country was free from the ills of poverty, war and crime. This was not because of considerable advances in economic or technological knowledge, which were limited to certain elements of animal husbandry. It was instead because of a considerably improved social and political model which allowed, amongst other things, for women priests.