Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.

Posts tagged “Free Market

Is there a Morality of Profit? Hrm. I dont think so!

“A society is moral if it both allows man to fulfill his potential and, in utilitarian terms, creates the most good. Fortunately, a society based on the profit motive can achieve both of these factors. By acknowledging the fundamentals of human nature — that man is intrinsically self-interested — and channeling it towards productivity through a system based on such an understanding, both individuals and societies will develop and grow.”

I beg to differ. Under this logic, the unbridled application of the profit motive would create the most moral society — and history shows us instead the Gilded Age. Unrestrained capitalism may produce the most wealth, but the wildly unequal distribution of that wealth guarantees that some will have more opportunity to fulfill their potential than others. The reality is that the more the profit motive rules, the less moral the resulting society.

I would have to be a blithering idiot to ascribe no good to the profit motive, nor acknowledge the multitude of positive human endeavors in which it plays an indispensable part. The transcontinental railroad, for example, allowed for the wholesale destruction of the buffalo, sealing the fate of the Plains Indians. But it also linked two sides of the continent — the epitome of an inevitable development. I would not be writing this without the internet and 10,000 inventions that preceded it — many motivated by the desire to make money. Societies in which there is no profit motive mostly do not work — witness North Korea. (I say “mostly” because many small communitarian societies in which there is no profit motive have worked very well. Native American tribes are a prime example.)

Without the profit motive we wouldn’t have much in the way of mining, oil and gas, skyscrapers, bridges, food production, housing, biotech, retail, fashion, banking and air travel — in short, all the elements of modern industrial society. It is also an indispensable part of any realistic solution to third world poverty — though ironically so, as this poverty is almost always inextricably linked to the legacy of rapacious colonialism.

But the fact is that the best things we do as human beings are never motivated by the desire for profit. Not one poem is written, symphony composed, or masterpiece painted. Miep Gies did not hide the Frank family for money, nor was it the reason Mother Teresa tended the sick of Calcutta. It’s not why 99.9 percent of all athletes pick up a football, swim a mile, or run a marathon. It’s not why you read to your kids at night, tend to an aging parent, or stage an intervention for a drug-addicted friend.

Here are two lists. One denotes 10 things done solely with profit as an overriding motive; the other, 10 things in which the desire for profit plays little or no part. (If there is a related consequence, I put it in parentheses.)

Profit-Motivated

1. The Slave Trade (Civil War)
2. The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire
3. The Iraq War
4. Sex trafficking
5. Blood diamonds
6. The arms trade
7. The drug trade
8. The genocide of Native Americans
9. The destruction of rain forests
10. Off-shore drilling (The BP Disaster)

Little or No Profit Motive

1. Motherhood
2. Affection
3. Volunteering
4. The Arts
5. Play
6. Twelve-step Programs
7. National parks
8. Exploration
9. The Olympics
10. Education

The profit motive may be necessary, but “moral” hardly seems like the right adjective for it. Loan-sharking is not moral. Strip mining is not moral. Sweatshops are not moral. A world in which making money reigns as a supreme expression of morality would be a sorry utopia indeed. Greed may be inevitable, but the urge to accumulate as much as possible should be far down on the list of traits a society should ever want to anoint as one of its highest values.

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Capitalism: Never Enough?

“How much is enough?” If we as a society are really committed to the notion that “more is always better” and if we believe we can sustain economic growth indefinitely.

“Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life … that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction in consumption… .We need things consumed, burned up, replaced and discarded at an ever accelerating rate.”

But as an engine for humanity, it is not sufficient to simply buy and sell. Many economists today are suggesting we must not rely on growth as our sole criteria for judging a ‘healthy’ economy — that we must find ways to measure the quality of people’s lives and the impacts we are having that are not based on just dollars and cents. We have all heard that money can’t buy happiness. Now we’re having to acknowledge that happiness is not a commodity to be bought and sold, and we can no longer afford to be addicted to consumption.

I am not against the theory of Capitalism as a means for distributing goods and services, just as I am not against alcohol. I am, however, against Capitalism or any economic theory when it becomes an ideology, just as I am against a pervasive culture of drinking and drugs in which individuals lose their capacity to choose (or even question their choices).

When our practices become so pervasive that they ‘take over’ people’s thinking to the extent they self-destruct (for example, through excessive drinking or excessive debt), then we need to stop and ask what is really going on. We need to challenge our most basic beliefs and assumptions about what we want, how we are living and the choices we are making.

Creating any new habit is difficult. And getting beyond an addiction can be extremely challenging. But having the courage to take stock and get clear about what we want is the essence of what makes us who we are. This is exactly what we need to do to create the foundations for whatever possible future we want.