Wednesday, December 7, 2011

What is the Standard for a Good Economy?

Aside from the question of who the economy works for, another basic question is, What is the standard for judging how good an economy is? Or, restated, what is the basic organizing principle for an economy? Is it efficiency, growth, how much “wealth” is produced, or sheer amount of materials goods? Or something different, such as equality? Is there more than one standard that should apply? 
One standard I would like to propose for judging economic institutions is interconnectedness. Most of our problems are a result of the alienation inherent in modernity’s instrumental rationality - the mindset that everything is potentially a tool or instrument for human purposes and that sets human utility as the standard for measuring value. Instrumental rationality, by failing to recognize the dignity of humanity and the awe-inspiring majesty of nature, and by reducing both to mere economic means, produces an alienation or separation of people from each other, from nature, and even from psychologically from themselves. Alienation is the separation of things that should be connected, the division of that which should be whole; it is a concept of Marx’s but one even used by some conservatives, when they want to show that commercialization can alienate people from tradition or religion.
It seems to me, therefore, that the solution to our current Great Crisis is to do anything that directly overcomes alienation and re-connects people: any economic program or policy that leads to greater, healthier interconnection is a candidate for a legitimate economic and social policy change. New economic practices and arrangements should make for greater interconnection, stronger communities, stronger families, thriving societies, and a healthy globe. We can overcome alienation directly by promoting reconnection, re-integration, healthy interdependence, and a solid connection to the larger wholes of which we participate.  

Of course, we must necessarily rely on people for their labor and turn to nature for its raw materials, but the point is that we should not be exploitative about it through a consumerist economy addicted to maximal growth, for we are interconnected and interdependent. Both human beings and the biosphere in which they exist should not, in principle, be thought of as merely means to our ends. Doing so violates human dignity as well as fails to recognize that nature existed before us and thus was not made for our purposes. Such purposes include very negative ones like power, war, exploitation, greed, and even excessive desire for comfort, that have very negative consequences externally and that diminish human character internally when habitual. 
Naked, unrestrained growth and efficiency are morally and economically self-defeating and thus have to be rejected: it is our addiction to unrestrained growth that is leading to the destruction of the biosphere, but it also has led to widespread exploitation of a global underclass, which is inconsistent with the purpose of economic cooperation, which is to improve human life for all.  Efficiency and growth are very pragmatic values which, in economics as well as politics, have to be fenced in and guided by deeper principles.*  Growth and efficiency are desirable - it's crazy to be inefficient for inefficiency's sake - but they have to be constrained by higher principles first.  Everyone would agree that it is wrong to base economic growth on outright slavery, for example. I will say that it is acceptable to shoot for economic growth, but only as long as it is consistent with environmental sustainability, for instance, or the equality, dignity, and development of all persons. Morally it’s wrong to have an economy that exploits other people or that threatens the entire biosystem - and, I would argue, these end up being less efficient in the long run too. There are many different constraining principles are worthy of consideration. 
In short, we need to change our standards for what make for a good economy. We should not limit our judgments of what is economically legitimate to that which efficient, or promotes growth, or to what the market decides, as conventional economic dogma does. Indeed, it is the addiction to efficiency and growth at all costs that has created so much alienation and social and environmental destruction in the first place. We should expand it to anything that overcomes alienation directly and creates greater real social connectedness (not just a mere “sense” of connectedness) between individuals, families, communities, and countries, as well as internal psychic connectedness with ourselves, and bio-connectedness with nature too. All these things mean greater real connection to life – to our own individual lives, our social lives, and to the living biosphere itself. Economics must be subordinate to biological life, for without life there would be no economics. 
*In the big words of moral theory, efficiency and growth are consequentialist positions which, in my view, must be constrained by higher deontological and virtue-theory principles. 

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