First of all the book cover is beautiful and I found the concepts of secular faith and spiritual freedom very useful. Secular faith is the commitment to spend our finite lives in a certain way despite the risk of failure and the certainty of death. Spiritual freedom is consciously deciding upon a way of being through self-reflection instead of going with the flow and letting others (or our natural drives) decide.
My main critiques concern later parts of the book where he decides to take a Marx-inspired economic stance (and misunderstands much of capitalism). Although his intentions are good (and I share many of them), he does plenty of wishful thinking.
1. “The point of wealth under capitalism is to accumulate more wealth, not to use it as a means for a meaningful end” (p. 259). This is patently untrue. The goal of firms is to seek profits because this keeps them afloat, but the individuals in the firm seek profit for the sake of improving their opportunities and quality of life. His argument (or assertion) is not convincing.
2. “The exploitation of workers is necessary under capitalism, since only the extraction of surplus value can generate any form of surplus wealth.” The term ‘exploitation’ here does not mean unfair (also the author seems to think it does), rather that the employer receives some of the worker’s productivity as a payment for granting the worker opportunity to work.
3. He argues for democratic socialism (not redistribution which I favor, but collective ownership of the means of production). The reason this is wishful thinking is that it does not deal with human nature. People generally are not motivated to work hard for the benefit of other people who are not part of their tribe. Profit is a way of convincing entrepreneurs to provide goods and services to others. He writes that “under democratic socialism, everyone would have... a collective commitment... our democratic state provides” (p. 305). Here we deal with the free rider dilemma (everyone will prefer that someone else works instead) and agency costs (a state may use its power to enrich itself instead of serving the people). None of these basic microeconomic issues are dealt with. Instead the author has “secular faith” that this system works. This is not to say that democratic socialism is unachievable, but it requires real arguments instead of wishful thinking.
4. He asserts both that ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs’ (p.307) & “no one is forced to participate in social labor” (p.308). Either we force people with ability to work, or we change the motto: “From each according to his altruistic motivation, to each according to his needs.” Like I said before, there are reasons why socialism works in small tribes but does not scale up to modern societies.
To end on a positive note, there are many useful ideas in this book. We should definitely measure our success as a society based on the quantity and quality of our free time instead of using measures of production. Further, we should make sure our economic system serves our people. This means keeping the market dynamic and competitive (preventing the government from providing special favors to interest groups and corporations), carefully regulating markets with information asymmetries (health care and finance, for instance), and sharing the fruits of our collective labor through redistribution.
In sum, this book is good philosophy but bad economics.