Saturday, August 6, 2011

Economy, Purpose, and the Fallacy of Infinite Growth

Introduction: The Language of Economy

Let's put aside labels and their connotations for a minute.  Words like "capitalism," "socialism," "communism," and even "economics" have way too much baggage and innuendo attached to be a part of a rational conversation. We've imbued them with Good and with Evil, and so one cannot be proclaimed a socialist or a capitalist without moral judgment following close behind.  Once cannot speak of economics without the intensity of fear, anger, outrage, frustration, hope, and expectation.

Putting aside the labels and building from scratch, what ought the fundamental building blocks of a society be?  That is, if we suddenly had the need to create a new nation, how should that nation be organized?  I don't mean what branches of government it should have, or what kinds of political parties (if any at all).  I mean something more fundamental than all of that.  What should the motive force for the people of that society be?  What should the implicit goal and purpose of individual and collective life be?

Building a Society

Freedom, it should be said, is not an end goal.  There perhaps was a time when it made sense as one, as both the French and American revolutions demonstrate.  But what does it mean to organize a life around freedom?  It means little, because freedom is a way of doing things, and not a reason for doing things.  To act for the sake of freedom is, in some measure, to act just because you can.  "Because I can," is rarely a good reason for doing things.

Nevertheless, it goes without saying the people ought to be free, need to be free.  While we might debate the meaning of "free," we can, I think, agree that any actual purpose in human life is best achieved when people are free.  This has been the mistake of communist (and other) governments of the past: they change the end goal while doing nothing to improve the conditions necessary to make that end goal attainable.  Without freedom, people cannot employ their creative energy towards their process, which prevents them from reaching a meaningful and successful outcome.  Just as you cannot dictate the learning of a child and expect that child to actually learn, you cannot dictate the life of a man and expect that man to actually live.

So what kinds of goals should a society be organized around?  Justice, like freedom, is not an end point, but a means.  Peace is the same.  How about, then, happiness?  Indeed, the American Declaration of Independence suggests as much: "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness" are inalienable rights.  Life and liberty are means, the pursuit of happiness is an end.  A reasonable and desirable goal for both individual human life and for a society.  Of course, we could probably come up with dozens of good goals, and reasons why each of them are flawed.  The point, however, is that it makes sense to have a philosophical purpose for a society as an anchor around which laws, governmental systems, and, yes, even economies can be built.

The Constitution, of course, reads "Life, Liberty, and Property."  Now, let's resist the urge to use those dirty economic words.  Think, instead, about meanings.  What, really, does it mean for property to be a right?  It does not mean, importantly, that our society need be organized around money.  Context does matter, here, however, and so it does mean that our society is not organized around the pursuit of happiness.  That was a revolutionary campaign slogan with no power to shape the law.*

* Indeed, it probably sounds absurd to say that the law should be organized around the pursuit of happiness.  One might even argue that the right to the pursuit of happiness is built into liberty, in every meaningful legal sense.  That very well may be true, but it misses the point.  The point is, liberty speaks to process, and pursuit of happiness speaks to outcome.  Pursuing happiness is something you do, liberty is something you need in order to do it.  In building a society, it does no good to speak solely of the means that people will have without speaking, to some degree, to the goals that will be supported and encouraged.  You may argue that supporting and encourage goals is not the work of a government (or a society at large), but of course it is an inevitable outcome of having a society at all.  What is a culture if not a set of supported and unsupported (or honored and shunned) actions?  Indeed, even the most libertarian states and individuals tend to have a semblance of moral sensibility.  If a society says that the pursuit of happiness is both right and a right, I suspect few would object on the grounds that said society is unfairly trying to control people.  And if they did object on those grounds, they must be very upset at every other society ever, which have had more obscure and stricter moral goals than happiness.

What, then, is our society built around?  There is no constitutional necessity that it be primarily commercial, despite the presence of "property."  Increasingly, however, that is our shared end goal.  Commerce, money, exchange...  Acquisition is the measure of a life in the modern world.  Why is this true?  Because our culture - with some governmental aid, but let's not shift blame to those who simply enact our cultural will - had decided, globally, that property should be the primary purpose of both individual human life and of our social existence.

Now, I would be surprised if the majority of people would say that money ought to be the end goal of individual human life or society in general.  I would also be surprised, however, if a careful examination of any individual life in the modern world would not include some concern for money.  You see, regardless of how highly any individual person holds monetary gain, it is a kind of implicit measuring stick in our society, a measuring stick, what's more, that shapes behaviors and determines possible actions based upon a shared cultural understanding that certain amounts of money equate to certain material resources.

Now don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that money is flawed in itself.  It's a useful abstraction for many reasons.  The problem is not money, but a global (and increasingly globalized) culture in which money is not merely a convenient way of ensuring that people's needs are met, but rather an entire organizing principle and end goal for human social life.  Much like grades in school, money is an abstraction of achievement that bears some not inconsequential relationship to actual success, but which also misses the point entirely.  If the purpose of going to school is to get good grades, and not to learn, then what good is school?  Similarly, if the purpose of life is to acquire property, to hold money, to be rich, then what good is life?*

*Again, I beseech you to stay away from the language of socialism, capitalism, and so on.  I am not talking about capitalism, here.  I'm talking about the fundamental assumptions of our society and culture, and whether or not they make sense.  If those assumptions are capitalist, if I am, therefore, a socialist... Well, then you've missed the point.  The point is not to label, but to live.

It would be insanity to create a school where grades supersede learning in importance (and so, of course, in many schools this is the case).  Insanity not because it doesn't make sense, but because it fails to go to the root of things.  Indeed, it makes a lot of sense for students to pay more attention to grades than their learning, and so most do.  What they miss, then, and what their teachers miss, is the opportunity for a more fulfilling, joyful, and meaningful experience.

Now lets take that entire paragraph and do it with society at large.

It would be insanity to create a society where money supersedes happiness in importance (and so, of course, in many societies this is the case).  Insanity not because it doesn't make sense, but because it fails to go to the root of things.  Indeed, it makes a lot of sense for people to pay more attention to money than to happiness, and so most do.  What they miss, then, and their law makers and luminaries miss, is the opportunity for a more fulfilling, joyful, and meaningful experience.

Now you may say that there is no meaning to human existence, so who cares how society is organized?  I would argue that that's just the money talking.  Because money is so abstract, so inherently meaningless except as a kind of measure of materially full but spiritually empty success, a society built around it tends to produce citizens who find life meaningless.  Why?  Because they are right.  True, they are free to find their own purpose, to organize their own lives around the pursuit of happiness or some other more meaningful goal, but at every turn they will be confronted with commerce, with their own money or lack thereof.  It is no accident that many of even the most ardent supporters of a spiritual life live in material comfort (and why shouldn't they?): in a society built around money, it is hard to be seen as spiritually successful if you are not economically successful.  We have an innate cultural bias against poverty.*

* Just as the school has an innate cultural bias against students with bad grades.  We say those bad grades (that poverty) comes from laziness, from stupidity, from an inability to understand the system.  The thing is, we've built the system not only so poverty (so bad grades) are possible, but in fact so that they are necessary. "The poor will be with you always" because, in a system built around money (grades) it is impossible for everyone - or even the majority - to succeed.  So whose failure is it?

The Fallacy of Infinite Growth

Little of this, of course, is surprising.  A society organized around X will tend to produce citizens who are deeply concerned with X, whether or not they think that X ought to be the purpose or goal of their own life or of society at large.  What's more, if X is limited in its availability, it naturally follows that people will try to horde X, even at the expense of other leaving other members of their same society with too little X to survive.

Ah, but there's the problem.  Everyone can have enough X.  Everyone get an A in this class.  Everyone can be rich.

The true, fundamental problem with organizing a society around money is none of what I've written above.  Sure, it is troubling and frustrating to watch people (both successful and otherwise) come to believe that their lives are meaningless.  Of course it's silly that we've fallen for the argument that money is the best way to assure happiness on a large scale (despite centuries of evidence to the contrary).  Yes it's amazingly stupid that we've made even having a conversation about economics well nigh impossible thanks to how loaded the language surrounding it has become, in spite of the actual meaning of the words involved.  But in spite of all of those problems, at the real core is this issue, which is tied up in human nature and evolutionary history: the fallacy of infinite growth.

Everyone can be, if not rich, well-off.  A rising tide lifts all boats.  Everyone can have X.

Except that's not true.  There are complex reasons why not everyone can have an A in a class.  Similarly, there are complex reasons why not everyone can be "well-off" in society.  But there's a simple reason why a money-driven economy makes material comfort for all impossible.  Finite resources, and the unsustainable nature of infinite growth.

Human beings evolved in a time and place where the size of the world and the resources in it were effectively infinite relative to the human population.  Acquiring material goods made sense for small packs and tribes because, well, there was so much stuff around that was so hard to get that it was crazy not to stockpile, to horde, to protect, to be "rich."  We have, built into our evolutionary psyches, a notion that the world will continue to support us no matter how much more of it we use.  And for good reason: this has always been true.

The problem is, it's not true.  Not at all.  The world is manifestly finite in size, and therefore finite in resources.  For all of the talk about renewable, sustainable energy and such, the simple fact remains: there is only so much stuff that we have access to.  Now think about the assumptions of a society built around money, an economy built around growth...  Recall that success and failure of companies in the modern world has less to do with profits, and more to do with growth of profits, with success relative to projections.  A growing economy, we believe, is a healthy one.  A growing world is a successful one.

Except the world cannot support more people (if it can even support how many we have now), and the economy cannot, fundamentally, grow ad infinitum.  Even if there were good philosophical reasons to organize society around commerce (and the first part of this post has argued that there are not), there are practical reasons why it is ludicrous.  What happens when we continue growing for the next twenty, fifty, or one hundred years?  Where will the people go?  Where will the energy come from?  What resources will we be able to access?

An assumption of infinite growth may very well be built into human nature, but it's an assumption we need to overcome, nonetheless.  Having seen the flaw of that assumption, it's impossible not to see the flaw of modern commerce: it cannot go on forever, because we cannot create ever more goods, ever more energy, ever more stuff when we only have a finite amount of stuff to begin with.  It would not only be better to organize our society - our world - around a different principle than money.  It will be necessary to do so.

Conclusion: Where Are We Going?

There is little reason to believe that there will be a fundamental change in the political economy of the modern world in the near future, despite the fact that such a chance is ultimately not only desirable, but necessary for the continued success of humanity as a species.  The reason such a chance is impossible is cultural and linguistic: we lack the language to have the conversations we need to have in order to restructure our political world.  We are stuck in a verbal shouting match, arguing over which deck chair should go where on a sinking ship.

It goes deeper than that, however.  Our current political and economic systems are self-perpetuating.  They make use of human nature to reinforce their tenets.  They make dangerous assumptions that are not only left unexamined, but are in fact are transformed into boons with rhetoric.  They serve no one - including the most successful - and yet are defended staunchly by even the least successful.  How this is achieved is not totally clear: there's deception, of course, but no vast conspiracy.  There's mis-education, but not explicitly.  Above all, there's oversimplification and moralizing without any attempt to understand the roots of those processes.

With that in mind, the takeaway here should not be that "Capitalism is Evil."  That's exactly not my point.  Indeed, the mentality that capitalism, socialism, or any other economic system is innately good or evil is in fact a large part of the problem.  True or not, those assessments forget to go to the root.  They forget to ask, "How ought a society to be organized, especially in light of the material realities of the modern world (where infinite growth is an illusion that has been dispelled)?"  They turn the entire conversation into an ideological shouting match, which, of course, only serves to perpetuate the existing cultural, social, and economic systems as they already are.

So what do I suggest?  Well, that's hard to say.  I think, above all, we need to engage in a conversation about purpose, about meaning, and about how we can better design a society, a government, and a world.  That conversation must challenge assumptions.  That conversation must undermine the belief that we should do things a certain way because it's natural to do so, or because we have always done so.  As Descartes attempted with philosophy, we need now, in the modern world, to attempt with society: to start with a blank slate.  We must ask, how ought we, as human beings, to design a society so that we all might live more fulfilling lives?

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