Since starting this blog three years ago, I have continued to explore territory further from traditional libertarian camps. Much of my recent shifting has been influenced by reading fewer blogs and reading more books. Jesus For President strengthened the anti-war views of my libertarian past and added skepticism about the importance of private arms for personal security. Fast Food Nation and Salt, Sugar, Fat strengthened my growing concerns about negative externalities and unintended consequences in the food industry and added somewhat greater sympathies for unions and regulations. Affluenza strengthened my growing skepticism about the usefulness of GDP as a measuring stick and added skepticism about the value of much of our rising standards of living.
So Where Am I Headed Now?
Enter this video, shared by a Facebook friend.
I am more sympathetic than I used to be to some of these ideas. I strongly believe the cycle of debt-fueled growth is a harmful and unsustainable manifestation of short-term thinking that often masks external costs. I agree that it feels like we should be able to come up with a better way to channel the productivity increases of recent decades into fewer working hours and more freedom to pursue personal passions that could have greater benefits to the rest of humanity.
Not So Fast…
However, I strongly disagree when the video accuses companies of taking resources that used to be free and selling them to us for profit, or when it apparently claims that problems arise because money is artificially scarce. These claims may be emotionally or superficially appealing, but I believe they betray fundamentally flawed understandings of economics.
Money essentially represents resources, and it is resources that are truly scarce. Most resources cannot be free in the utopian sense that air is free because they have a limited supply. Sure, I “have to” pay money to my electric company, and they profit from it, but this setup has several advantages over a “free” energy source of wood. First, the electric company provides a greater amount of energy at a far greater efficiency than I could acquire myself. Despite the dirtiness of fossil fuels (and I am very excited about solar energy), they are said to at least be cleaner than the “free” wood burning of the past.
Additionally, those old forests were never really “free,” anyway. The “tragedy of the commons” indicates time and time again how freely available resources become exhausted. Conversely, private property rights incentivize owners to make energy sustainable to maintain their source of profits while simultaneously incentivizing consumers to use less energy so they can save money. When the buffalo was “free,” it was almost hunted to extinction. When resources are owned, they almost never run out.
Even if I somehow deserve some ownership of those limited resources, the electric company is still not simply taking something that would be free and selling it back to me; they are providing a valuable service by refining those raw fossil fuels into forms of energy I can actually use. So I voluntarily choose to pay my electric company for a larger, faster, cleaner, more sustainable, and more useful source of electricity than I could otherwise find for “free.”
On The Other Hand…
On the other hand, it is quite probable that I simply don’t understand Charles Eisenstein’s “gift economy” and need to read his book. Flawed ideas about resources do not necessarily invalidate many of his ideas, and the deep hunger for a better way is not necessarily a utopian fantasy.
“Cleaner” is still dirty enough to pollute countless rivers and lungs. “More sustainable” may not be sustainable enough. Why do I need “larger” amounts of energy, anyway? So I can drive farther to work? What do I do with my extra time from getting it “faster”? Check Facebook more often?
For years, I’ve extolled the virtues of markets that provide us with so much growth and innovation only to find myself wondering what all that innovation is really doing for us. The System now helps Brazilian students learn English by connecting them to online chats with lonely elderly Americans! The System keeps giving us better pills to increase our quality of life! The System gives us fancier treadmills with cup holders and customizable TV screens! Isn’t that awesome?!
But what if the American seniors are only lonely because the System made transportation so cheap that the rest of their family moved away? What if we only need those pills to offset all the negative health effects we got when the System gave us television and TV dinners? What if we only need those treadmills because the System made our lives so convenient that we didn’t have to walk anywhere? (Maybe we are paying for things that used to be free…) When I start peeling back the layers of “why,” I feel like I don’t have to go very far before I wonder if we’re really making much progress.
I used to like to say it was the Government that kept setting up new programs to fix the very problems caused by the old programs (see the old yarn about government breaking your leg and giving you a crutch). But I’m starting to realize that this happens with the whole system, businessmen and regulators all mixed in together! At least with the Government paradigm you have a convenient entity to blame. If it’s the entire System that’s breaking our legs and inventing newer, shinier, foldable crutches paid for by tiny ads on the handles… then maybe we have no one to blame but ourselves. And when I dare to think this way I lose all interest in the ideological turf wars about whether the Auto-Syncing Wi-Fi enabled LED SmartBulb 3000X was the product of profit-seeking market innovation or government research and regulation. How did we end up in a world where fancy lightbulbs made us so excited in the first place?
…Maybe I’m Starting To Shift
For a while I dealt with my growing unease by appealing to technology as a savior. Solar panels and electric cars will free us from pollution. Self-driving software will free us from road deaths and unproductive commutes! 3d printers and asteroid mining will save us from manufacturing scarcities and stagnation! Maybe Bitcoin will even save us from the financial system! But if new technology merely solves the problems old technology gave us, why should we assume the new forms won’t create new problems that lead to new “treadmills” that we have to discretely add back in to our increasingly compartmentalized days that are still only twenty-four hours long? What if new technology just distracts us even further?
I used to relish every new Apple product presentation with religious fervor. Now I think future civilizations will find our archives of “incredible” and “amazing” new ways to swipe a screen and won’t believe it was real.
I think I need a new paradigm.
I thought I had achieved political enlightenment when I stopped seeing things from a left-right Democrat-Republican paradigm and started seeing things from a freedom-authoritarian paradigm. The real question wasn’t whether Democrats or Republicans should grow government; the real question was whether or not we should grow government at all! But I’m starting to think that this “mind-blowing” revelation is just another axis on the same false plane of economic progress.
Maybe I need to look at things from a third dimension – a more spiritual plane that considers the purposes behind our clamor for conveniences, a paradigm that accounts for the unintended consequences of each “new” and “improved” innovation. This kind of thinking is certainly not exclusive to religion, though I find it quite at home with the teachings of Jesus Christ; it seems more difficult to help “build the kingdom of God” when your money is tied up in mortgages and your time is tied up cleaning, mowing, fixing, and organizing the properties he “blessed” you with. Have I gained the whole world wide web in my pocket, but lost my sole purpose for living? Maybe the real question isn’t whether a bigger or smaller government is better for economic growth; maybe the real question is whether or not we still want economic growth at all!
Gasp! Surely not! Old paradigms do not quickly surrender to such heresies. Whatever complaints one may have about the diminishing returns of Western materialism, surely we do not need to throw the air conditioning and the antibiotics out with the neo-Luddite bathwater! The march of progress may have a few unpleasant side effects, but it would be foolish to presume that life is not better now than it was a hundred years ago. Life will never be perfect and people will always have something to complain about, so just keep your head down and play along and if you don’t like the treadmills or the Taco Bells just ignore them and make different choices. What’s so hard about that?
Well, I don’t know. This is the cognitive dissonance I have recognized but not yet resolved. What good are power windows if they make your muscles atrophy from lack of use? Is there a point at which the march of progress stops making life better and just makes it more complicated? Can we filter the “bads” the System gives us and keep the “goods,” or are they inseparably linked? How much can a citizen free himself from the consequences of the System’s conveniences without uprooting all of them, and how does one reach those limits, and how does one extend them?
These are the kinds of questions I’ve started asking. These are the kinds of ideas at which I’ve started directing my meager grasps of economic principles and political insights. These may just be the silly and pretentious existential musings of a privileged blogger, but I’m willing to take that risk to see where it leads me…
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