The business of bliss

The Hungry Spirit

April 3, 1998

Charles Handy has wide experience, as a writer and broadcaster, oil executive, economist, professor at the London Business School and chairman of the Royal Society of Arts. In his enjoyable book, The Hungry Spirit, he draws on this to consider the question of what makes us happy and to give answers relevant to all of us, from the chief executive of a major corporation, to the journalist, to the unemployed person who hopefully can find the book in his local library.

It is meant for the humanities department, not the economics department. Indeed it is likely, even if it is not intended, to shatter economists' cosy postulates. I can just imagine a bright young economist trying to develop a utility curve appropriate for the enlightened new man or woman built on the author's outline of a fairer, happier and more accomplished individual of the future. How tempting and how hopeless to model the complex behaviour of such an individual.

And yet, for all the new levels of complexity introduced by Handy, he has not succeeded in shattering my fundamental belief in the market as the only sensible measuring tool that we have for inferring collective assessments of value. Indeed his own words strengthen my belief: "Left to themselves, things do not necessarily work out for the best. Laissez faire is value free. No one is responsible for anyone else. That is improper selfishness and can self-destruct. We need something better. Capitalism as an idea includes social capital as well as economic capitalism. One without the other will not work for long."

To me, laissez-faire is not value free, it has a strong ideological component. What I agree with, rather, is that an established market produces measurements which are free from the value-set of the observer. This characteristic of the market possesses an essential information value of its own, that is intrinsically useful to us, no matter what we think of a particular market's ethics or its role as a supposedly efficient and effective method for allocating resources. To know the street value of cocaine, for example, is an important input for policy-makers on social and criminal issues, regardless of the fact that this market may be inefficient or that the sale of cocaine is both illegal and (we may consider) immoral.

"Anything that is unpriced is ignored by the market," writes Handy. The bulk of distortions in policy-making, in business decisions, in our exercise of our democratic rights and in our personal lives, is caused by the massive irrationality brought about by the lack of value assigned to particular goods. This irrationality is not a fundamental feature of the market, but something temporary: we may be looking at a "spot" market, ie today's market. If we had a futures market for the same good, say unpolluted air or water, the good might well have a significant price.

"The real social revolution of the last 30 years, one we are still living through, is the switch from a life that is largely organised for us, once we have opted into it, to a world in which we are all forced to be in charge of our own destiny." This may be true, but only for the last half of the century. My grandmother was born in 1884. She never thought life had been organised for her, she had to fight through it, taking her responsibilities upon herself every day of her life and she was the better for that.

"The thesis of personal responsibility and proper selfishness will be an empty dream for many, unless we can equip them with the resources to achieve some sense of 'enough' in material terms and then go beyond that to reach their goal in life and find their white stone. It is one of the main obligations of government, as servant to all its people, to make this sort of responsibility a realistic possibility for everyone." How can one disagree with such a statement? The real problem is how to define "enough": that is where individual backgrounds, political ideologies and social credos come into intractable conflict.

I grew up as an agnostic and libertarian, but in a culture imbued with humanistic values and a sense of responsibility for the weaker members of society, and with the educational tradition of an enlightened Austrian catholicism. So I can relate equally well to Anglo-Saxon principles of individualism as to the author's more enlightened post-capitalistic view of the world. No one, however, including Handy, has found an answer to what I see as the biggest issue for our increasingly global society: how to put back to work that third of the world's workforce which is unemployed and perhaps unemployable? Who would dare to write a book advocating the dismantling of all immigration barriers and, at the same time, the levelling down of the social safety-net to a low global average, together with compulsory minimum standards of individual school performance rather than of school attendance? That is certainly not the agenda for a political manifesto. But perhaps it is a topic for the author's next book?

Rudi Bogni is the chief executive for private banking, Swiss Bank Corporation.

The Hungry Spirit

Author - Charles Handy
ISBN - 0 09 180168 0
Publisher - Random House
Price - £14.99
Pages - 2

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