The Joyless Economy


The Joyless Economy, by Tibor Scitovsky, New York: Oxford University Press, 1976, 310 pp., $11.95

Did you know that Americans take far fewer vacations than the people of every European country except Portugal? that the anecdotes whereby Americans are indifferent to the quality of food are borne out by various statistical measures? that we buy fewer flowers, move more often, throw out more garbage, hire more interior decorators, frequent fewer cultural events, spend 50 percent more free time alone, and look down on housekeeping far more than our European counterparts?

So what? Well, it, and more, all goes to show that Americans are poor consumers, says Professor Scitovsky. We are unskilled at it and take little—far too little—joy in consuming. We are haunted by the ghost of a Puritan ethic, which regarded production as worthy of great effort, consumption as warranting only the minimal attention necessary to keep one fit for producing.

The idea that Americans, of all people, are not oriented toward consumption is jarring to common beliefs. For what about our notorious penchant for buying—gadgets, the newest-model cars, televisions, the whole array of products made affordable by mass production? While there's nothing inherently inferior about these, says Scitovsky, they fulfill insufficiently a fundamental human need for stimulation, enjoying novelty. So his thesis is also jarring in that it goes against the presumptions of economics. The received wisdom in that field is that consumers, by definition, maximize their satisfaction, fulfill their needs optimally given their information, income, and so on. No need to probe into consumers' motivations. People have needs that they are driven to satisfy; add the assumption of rational man, and voila, we have a framework of analysis. The consumer knows best what is good for him, and he reveals his preferences in the marketplace. So, we can turn to the other side of the coin and study how it is that the market delivers what consumers want/need.

But hold on, says Scitovsky. It's not at all scientific to conjure up this picture of the consumer from postulation. And how do we know that consumption and production are in fact in their traditional harmony if we don't know more about the consumer side of the story? It is to fill in that story that he has turned elsewhere—to psychology.

In the preliminary chapters of The Joyless Economy, Scitovsky surveys what is known about human motivation in psychology, giving examples of the experimental evidence available. Unfortunately, this part of the book is not as interesting as it could be. At any rate, things turn out not to be so simple as either the economists or earlier psychologists have thought.

The framework was that organisms act, propelled by drives, to remove disturbances to their systems. Having done so, the organism was presumed to remain inert until again disturbed. In fact, however, both humans and animals often disturb their own "steady state." They don't remain inert, but seek out stimulation, the relief of boredom. Hence the drive-reduction framework has come to be replaced by one of arousal level—and zero is not the optimum.

But that's not all. It seems that what matters is not only comfort—being at the optimum level—but pleasure, the feeling that accompanies changes in the arousal level. This schema seems well supported by neurophysiological evidence, which Scitovsky summarizes; in addition, it meshes with familiar experience, for example, that the process of achieving a goal is more satisfying than being in the state of having attained it. But it is also evident, then, that "to some extent, pleasure and comfort are mutually exclusive alternatives, confronting the individual with a conflict he must resolve." Enter choice, or the opportunity for it. Enter also economics, although, as Scitovsky points out, "economic activity…is only one of the many sources of satisfaction."

He goes on in subsequent chapters to integrate economic activity and welfare into the psychologists' broader framework. There are interesting points along the way, but there also, at times, cliches and frustratingly unsupported generalizations—"competitive pressures" and "the tensions of modern society," or that one person's gain in status brings pain to others.

In the second half of the book, Scitovsky takes up "the American way of life." Drawing well upon the distinction between comfort and pleasure, he maintains that what and how we consume matters so much because affluence makes it very easy to satisfy our basic needs, to achieve comfort. Affluence thus provides a wonderful opportunity to seek pleasure via art, travel, conversation, reading, company-keeping. Yet the data tell the tale that Americans, faced with the comfort/pleasure conflict, have over-consumed comfort and under-consumed pleasure.

Cultural stimulation, as well as careful purchasing of what will satisfy and satisfy with grace our basic needs, requires skill. Novelty provides maximum enjoyment if it is not completely novel but comes with the already familiar. This, again, is borne out by recent work in psychology, some of it, interestingly, in investigations of people's aesthetic judgments. The already familiar implies prior related knowledge, implies learning; hence, "the consumption of novelty is skilled consumption." Unskilled and effortless pastimes won't do. The chapter on culture, where Scitovsky brings all this together, is the most interesting in the book, and it managed to allay most of my skepticism about his thesis.

Still, there are problems. For example, while questioning at the outset the economist's notion of rationality, Scitovsky himself never gives it up. Rationality applies to economic decisions—achieving comfort, in his schema; somehow it doesn't apply to attaining pleasure. "It is largely our narrow, individual rationality that makes us miss part of the fun others get out of life." And "it is selfish," he says, "if I ignore the benefit from my becoming more cultured to all those destined to share my company." His remedy: "to move to a higher or social rationality, which takes a longer view and considers other people's welfare beside our own." But that is just the inspiration of the Puritan ethic he so deplores! For production was revered because it provided services to others. And after all the discussion of how human beings need and benefit from the pleasure of skilled consumption, why in heaven's name insist that they must consider others' welfare in order to get on the ball? or that rationality wouldn't point one that way?

There are other dismays: his failure ever to observe a distinction between pleasure and happiness, for example; and his recommendations of more subsidies to the arts and mandatory liberal arts courses in schools.

Yet the book is valuable. It is an interesting project to bring together the insights of economics and psychology. He questions economic tenets that have long begged for questioning. He does place much responsibility squarely on consumers' shoulders for their self-professed dissatisfaction in spite of economic well-being. He does encourage consumers to demand quality products and to acquire the skills to determine which they are. Our economy may be joyless, but it needn't be. It's up to us consumers.

Ms. Zupan holds a B.A. in psychology and philosophy and has studied economics at the graduate level.