A colonel, asked why Indonesia's army was loyal to the corrupt Suharto regime for 30 years, only to turn against him in the dying days, explained it simply. During much of Suharto's rule, families would see their meagre bowls of rice increase by a few grains every week, just enough for contentment. But when the amount of rice diminished, they looked up from their bowls and saw the regime for what it was: corrupt and self-serving. The army followed the people and Suharto was overthrown.
How Much is Enough?, by the economist Robert Skidelsky and his philosopher son Edward, arrives at a similar inflexion in Western history. After decades of content in Europe and the US, the rolling financial crises of the past five years have finally forced us to look up and inquire where it all went wrong.
The Skidelskys follow a long line of people who have tried to find the line between enough and excess. Alfred Marshall, an economist contemporary of John Maynard Keynes, decided that £500 a year would do. The novelist Virginia Woolf concurred, in 1929, though she also wanted a room of her own. Aristotle asked what was enough when he thought about what one needs to live "a good life". Elements of fine character, he said, but not material wants above basic needs.
But Aristotle did not have to contend with a consumer society in which the difference between the two is blurred, or the relentless push for growth in modern economics which makes money an aim in itself.
In the 1930s, Keynes (of whom Robert Skidelsky is also a biographer) predicted that wealth would rise to such a level within 100 years that we would choose to work only 15 hours a week. But in order to achieve this, the economy needed to grow, and for that, industry needed to be stoked by the desire of people to better themselves. The economist assumed a plateau would be reached, a sort of utopian state at which desires would be stated by abundance. However, as data on inequality has shown, even those who have arrived at the upper reaches of wealth then seek to acquire money for its own sake. As the Texan oil tycoon H L Hunt said, money becomes "just a way of keeping score".
The central problem of capitalism, missed by Keynes, is that it requires the hunger for more to drive it forwards. There can never be enough.
If the pursuit of money doesn't lead to contentment, there must be other paths. The authors propose seven optimistic alternatives for a modern good life, using health, security, respect, personality, harmony with nature, friendship, and leisure as their parameters. There are a few specific suggestions, such as restrictions on advertising, and consumption taxes that don't penalise the poor, but both authors recognise that using regulation to coerce change is not in the spirit of their project.
The Skidelskys are not alone in worrying, now that the bowl of rice has diminished, about what money has done to the soul. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, mentioned their book in his Easter sermon, along with the US political philosopher Michael Sandel's What Money Can't Buy. But while the question may be pertinent now, the real challenge for Williams and the Skidelskys will be to keep it alive when the good times return.