A critical evaluation of the myths behind the economic mechanism
In order to clear the road towards a just and sustainable economic development three persistent myths, now dominating modern society, have to be exposed:
- Human beings have unlimited material needs which must be satisfied
- The necessity of endless growth
- A market without any constraints
Unlimited material needs?
The idea that man has unlimited material needs which have to be satisfied does reflect an immature and irresponsible attitude. Immature because it is the attitude of a spoiled child. It is simply not true that man has unlimited material needs which have to be met in order to lead a satisfactory life. Adopting a mature attitude towards material goods is a matter of common sense. Welfare should never be confused with well-being. Many people in our affluent society have already gone through the experience that an increase in wealth – after a certain level is reached – does not lead to greater happiness. On the other hand we see that even a modest increase in income for the huge number of poor makes a great difference. In many cases the difference between … life and death!
Religious leaders and philosophers have emphasized throughout the ages that material goods will never meet man’s quest for happiness. They recommended instead practicing restraint, moderation and above all respect for life in all its forms. Buddhism even speaks about craving as the main cause for unhappiness. Indeed, man infinitely surpasses the voracious animal of a consumer society.
For Christians it should be obvious, that the insatiable appetite for goods in our present culture stands in shrill contrast to the Ten Commandments and the preaching of Jesus. The Gospel liberates man from the suffocating embrace of materialistic bonds thus redeeming us from the continuous pressure of social imitation of the fellow citizen. The teachings of Jesus Christ open a perspective towards a more realistic and promising approach. “Man is not to live on bread alone, but on every word that issues from the mouth of God.” And in the Gospel of John we read: “Jesus said, I am the bread of life; he who comes to me will never be hungry, and he who believes in me will never again be thirsty…” In a society, so bent upon acquiring “perishing food”, it would make sense to ponder upon the basic wisdom: “Work for no perishing food, but for that lasting food which means eternal life; the Son of man will give you that, for the Father, God, has certified him,”
The concept of “unlimited needs” is also irresponsible in a world in which more than 1.300 million people suffer from hunger and misery. All those who are living in relative prosperity should realize that there is a direct relation between a further increase in wealth in the economically highly developed nations and the poverty in a great part of the world. How can someone who is indulging in an oversupply of goods maintain in good faith to have unlimited material needs? Are we aware that our production and consumption patterns are creating serious negative social and ecological problems particularly for the poor countries?
Already now is the world confronted with major ecological problems, largely due to the extravagant lifestyle in the prosperous North.
It should be clear that our planet couldn’t bear the additional environmental consequences of a similar economic development of several billion people. More than half of mankind is in urgent need of economic development in order to meet basic needs. Many are eager to realize a reasonable level of human existence. Preaching to developing countries that they should desist from doing so because of our concerns for the health of the planet will be in vain. Apart from being politically unrealistic it is also highly hypocritical in view of the extremely negative impact of our own environmental (mis)behavior! The concept of “unlimited needs” is therefore clearly an act of irresponsibility, degrading men and women to monsters of greed and lust. It should therefore be replaced by an attitude of enough is enough.
The present cult of consumerism is also doing a gross injustice to future generations. We will leave our children and grandchildren not only a degraded environment but also an impoverished world. They will be saddled up with debts, which will most likely have to be met in a less favourable situation than at present. Debts, largely incurred because of the unwillingness of those living now to refrain from satisfying their “wants”, for the benefit of those who will come after us!
If we really believe in a basic solidarity between all inhabitants of our planet we – in the North – should reconsider our extravagant consumption patterns so that others – the majority of the world population – may live. The primary goal of economics should be to meet first of all the basic needs of all people. At the same time great care should be taken that wants are met within the limits imposed by social- and environmental conditions.
Growth is inherent in nature. But not endless physical growth! Trees do not reach into heaven. At a certain point they stop growing in height, still they continue to develop. In a comparable way are human beings subject to limitations in physical growth while the process of inner development is supposed to continue! A healthy society should strive to achieve certain equilibrium between the inner drive to conquer new frontiers and the natural limits imposed by our planet. This basic wisdom is now foolishly pushed aside. In the dynamism of our actual economic growth model everything seems under an obligation to grow. This lack of common sense is amazing because permanent growth within a limited space is impossible. Even a child experimenting with a balloon could enlighten adults that one can’t have unlimited expansion within a finite space.
Many people take for granted that “growth is good”. But not all growth brings an increase in welfare! All depends on what sort of growth is meant. New investments do not always lead to greater employment. Quite often these could even lead to a dismissal of workers. Jobless growth, caused by technological developments and profit hunting, is a real problem. The serious structural unemployment problem in our societies demands a new approach in which greater attention will be given to existing possibilities for employment opportunities in sectors relevant to the qualitative aspects in life such as: health, education, social care, infrastructure and maintenance.
The urge for material growth in a finite world is nothing less than the growth of the cancer cell. Growth, in the economically highly developed countries, should be directed towards qualitative instead of quantitative goals. The present growth concept ignores the basic laws inherent to life on earth in order to realize a short-term material benefit. This is a fundamental error, as the laws of nature have to be respected if we want to prevent the undermining of the vital conditions for life. The need for growth in developing countries is indisputable; it is even an essential condition for the fight against poverty. But an additional claim from the highly developed nations on scarce natural resources is a sure recipe for disaster!
The underlying flaw in the present way of acting is that modern man seems to have forgotten the basics of the human condition. Not only the Bible but also other sacred scriptures constantly remind us not to aspire to become gods. Human hubris, so typical for the growth concept, is indeed leading us into utter confusion and chaos. Hence the particular relevance of the story of the tower of Babel!
A completely free market?
The market is without any doubt a useful instrument for the allocation of resources and distribution of goods. The present emulation of the unrestricted free market however takes no notice of some serious limitations:
- Limited access. Participation is only possible for those who dispose over purchasing power. All others are excluded. This should be a matter of grave concern in a society with a great number of poor and marginalized people.
- The assumption of equal access of parties to the market seldom applies. A free market with a relative equality between the market forces is an exception. Market conditions are in practice controlled by powerful agglomerates and multinationals.
- The market does not register essential goods such as the quality of human relations, nature, beauty and silence. Goods, which have no price but make life worthwhile!
- The market does not function on the basis of a long-term vision taking into account the social and environmental interests of future generations. On the contrary, the market tends to operate on basis of a short-term vision. A case in point is the extremely low price of petrol in the USA, notwithstanding the certainty that the present rate of consumption cannot be sustained over a longer period.
In spite of all these shortcomings is the privatization of public utilities actively pushed through. For governments there are obvious advantages such as less current expenditures, elimination of risks and no need to worry anymore about huge investment outlays. The general public however is paying a high price. The original goal of public service at reasonable costs is replaced by the profit motive, seldom resulting in less public service at a higher price! Private investors on the other hand will be able to benefit from the strong market position of the privatized enterprises. The growing tendency to privatization and liberation of the market system from all sorts of social fetters brings us every day nearer to a situation in which the law of the jungle prevails. Man and nature are here subordinated to the iron laws of the market economy. The inevitable victims are among the increasing number of the poor and weak. A development, which runs directly against the ecumenical tradition of a radical choice for the poor and marginalized.
Religions should therefore be alert to the shortcomings of the market and come into action whenever human rights are violated or the integrity of creation endangered. They should be resolute on the unequivocal right on a human, dignified life for all people, irrespective of race or creed. Basic essentials such as food, clothing, housing, education, social and health care, should be assured for all. Not only for present but also for future generations! Religious teachings remind us that it is not man who should stand in the service of the economy but the other way round. Indeed, economics should serve the legitimate needs of mankind in a sustainable way.
The market should therefore always be embedded within a social and economic context!