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Libertarians, and others who believe that a truly free market could solve virtually any problem, are generally in favor of laissez-faire capitalism. Merriam-Webster dictionary defines laissez-faire as “a doctrine opposing governmental interference in economic affairs beyond the minimum necessary for the maintenance of peace and property rights.”
The idea is that “demand and supply” principle of a free market is better at allocating resources and satisfying human needs than any other alternative, such as centrally-planned economy.
In a free market, individuals have an incentive to find a way to satisfy the needs of others, because they will be rewarded for that, while competition ensures that the needs of consumers are satisfied in the cheapest way possible. The price mechanism balances demand and supply: when a particular good is in high demand, a producer can charge more and therefore make a higher profit. Higher prices will attract more production, until eventually the supply matches the demand again. At that point the price will go down and a new equilibrium will be found. The free market also leads to efficient division of labor, because it rewards producers who have specialized and can compete better in a niche market.
Market mechanisms are basically collective trial-and-error processes that ensure that production is matched to the needs of consumers, even though no single person involved in this process might know how to do this. Market system itself will produce the solution, even though all participants are only following their narrow self-interest and have limited knowledge about the workings of the system. That’s why market is usually far superior to planned economy.
This is the theory of the free market in a nutshell. It looks great on paper and even works in practice quite well, but it also leads to all sorts of problems when confronted with complexities of the real world.
In his book Evolution’s arrow* John Stewart offers conclusive arguments that a free market is not always the best option. Chapter 16 of this book, titled “Limitations of Markets”, is a brilliant summary of problems with a free market. The following text will explore some of the ideas presented in that chapter, together with my commentary.
The most important thing that Stewart points out in his study of markets is the observation that markets will work properly only to the extent that individuals and corporations capture full effects of their actions on others. In his words:
“If individuals are not rewarded for all the beneficial effects of a particular action, the action will not be as profitable as other actions that are less beneficial, […] and if individuals do not bear the full cost of their harmful actions, they will not be deterred from doing things that harm others.”
In situations where this is the case, a free market produces detrimental outcomes for the society as a whole. Let’s explore now this argument in greater detail.
Goods such as home appliances, clothes and cars are normally used solely by the purchaser and cannot be enjoyed for free by anyone else. The same goes for services such as air travel, tickets for concerts and mowing your lawn. In all of these cases the full benefits of goods and services go exclusively to the purchaser, and as a result producers can obtain payment for all the benefits they create for others. In these cases a free market will provide the products and satisfy the demand.
However, a number of products are different in one important aspect:
“Some goods and services have collective effects that cannot be targeted only at those who pay for them. They have effects on many others, and it is impossible to prevent people from enjoying these effects even though they have not paid for them. It will be in the interests of individuals to free ride on these goods and services by taking them without paying. As a result, the producer will not be able to capture payment for all the beneficial effects on others of his goods or services. Goods and services that would have been profitable if all their effects were captured will not be profitable, and will not be produced in a society that relies only on markets.”
Stewart lists defense of a country as a classical example of a service with collective effects, as territory can only be defended on a continuum. Since free market would be unable to provide an adequate defense system, a government is needed to impose taxes and fund defense.
Another example of a service that free market will not provide to a satisfactory level is education. This is because good education doesn’t benefit only those people who got it, but has broader social implications. Stewart writes that specific professional education doesn’t benefit only the individual who can do his work better because of it, but also his co-workers who will be more productive, simply because they are working with and learning from someone with better skills. (Of course, it is usually much better to learn a particular skill from a professional teacher). More importantly, the society as a whole will function much better if everybody – no matter of financial status – is well educated about the common issues and can participate in democratic process.
Some other examples of services that are not handled well by a free market are “policing, the provision of safe and well-planned public areas such as parks and streets, and programs that reduce crime by rehabilitating drug addicts or by providing satisfying activities for teenagers.” All of these programs and services have “beneficial collective effects that cannot be targeted only at those who are willing to pay for them. No matter how beneficial these sorts of programs may be to a community, a free market will not provide them.”
When confronted with this failure of markets to solve certain social issues, libertarians usually invoke charity and voluntary work. Charitable contributions certainly can make a big difference in the world, but in my opinion this is not an adequate solution. And it doesn’t solve the free rider problem described above – some people will always choose to contribute disproportionately less to charity than others (or not at all), even though they could afford to be more generous, and even though they may benefit indirectly from charitable actions of others. Of course, the essence of charity is that it’s voluntary, so you cannot do anything about this.
Failure of a free market to address certain social problems and inadequacy of relying on charity makes a good case for having a public sector in some parts of the economy.
Unregulated markets will also lead to poor outcomes when individuals or corporations do not capture all the harmful effects of their actions. Generally, this would happen when the production and/or the use of goods and services have collective effects that go beyond the producer and the consumer – for example, the production may pollute the environment, and consequently be harmful to people in general. If neither the producer nor the consumer pays the price for these harmful effects on others, the market will give them no incentive to change anything. In fact, if the producer wants to stay in business he actually cannot even afford to use more expensive technologies that pollute less, as he would have to charge higher prices and lose competitive advantage of his product. As Stewart puts it:
“The competition that ensures that consumers get goods and services at the cheapest price is a two-edged sword. It destructively ensures that individuals and firms cannot take into account the factors that the market does not, even where it would advantage the community or society greatly if they did so.”
Free market advocates would probably say that consumers have the power to correct this destructive force of markets. They are on the demand side of the equation, so if they started to demand environmentally friendly products, the supply would follow. To some extent this is correct, but I think this seriously underestimates the power of public relations spin and greenwashing. A company that would only appear to be environmentally conscious would be able to outcompete other producers who would make genuine effort to pollute less.
But there are even bigger problems than greenwashing. Some people simply don’t care enough about the environment as they have other priorities, so in a laissez-faire system you would have to accept certain levels of pollution. Then there are people that like to live in a nice and clean local environment, but don’t care much about the environment on the other side of the planet. This is actually much more common and shouldn’t even be judged too much, because it is understandable to a certain degree: if you don’t observe pollution by yourself, you can have hard time comprehending the scope of the problem. Add globalization to the mix and it becomes extremely difficult to force companies to pollute less with market mechanisms: corporations can produce (and pollute) on one continent and ship the goods elsewhere. Consumers don’t see the pollution and people that are most affected by it are not in a position to influence the market.
It’s easy to say that consumers should educate themselves about products they buy and the impact they make on the environment by consuming this or that good or service. While I support the idea of personal responsibility, it is absolutely impossible to educate yourself about everything. Fields of science and technology have become so complex and enormous in scope in the last hundred of years that you have to study them for years to understand even the basics. It is completely unreasonable to expect from the average consumer to research every product he intends to purchase and understand every ramification of his decision.
Because of all these reasons mentioned above, I’m a strong supporter of environmental regulations imposed by the government.
The important conclusion that Stewart reaches in his chapter on the limitations of markets is that a market system doesn’t make government redundant:
“Markets are unable to ensure that citizens capture all the effects of actions that have collective effects. So ungoverned markets fail to reward and organize activities that have collective social benefits such as defense, education, and programs that build better communities. And they fail to deter pollution and other activities that cause collective harm […] Where markets fail, government action is necessary to ensure participants capture the full effects on others of their actions, and to ensure participants do not capture greater benefits than they should. Government can use taxes, laws, subsidies and other payments to try to organize the behavior and activities that would have arisen if the market was not deficient.”
Stewart makes no idealization of governments, though. He is fully aware that a government has very limited ability to perform its function effectively. Government has to rely on often incompetent and inefficient bureaucracy, and the interests of government officials will never be completely aligned with those of the general public – even in a democratic society.
What’s even worse: special interest groups can capture the government and use its powers for their own benefit. I have already written about that in my previous post (Part 4: Capitalism – A Love Story). When this happens you can kiss free market goodbye.
So, here is our catch-22: to carry out its duties government must be very powerful; it cannot be a paper tiger. But the more power the government has, the greater threat it becomes to society, if and when special interest groups capture its power.
To limit the risk of abuse, government should have no more power than what is strictly necessary to correct market deficiencies and provide services that the market could not. It seems to me that changing society for the better depends on finding this delicate balance between free market and government intervention. As well as between private ownership and collective ownership.
This series of articles will continue with the quest of finding a way toward that balance.
Continue to Part 6. (coming soon)
*Evolution’s arrow: The Direction of Evolution and the Future of Humanity – I really enjoyed reading this book, yet I remain skeptical of some of its conclusions. Still, I would recommend this book to anyone – if nothing else – for Stewart’s outside-the-box way of thinking that will challenge your existing views on life, evolution, humanity and social systems.
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Capitalism – an economic system based on private ownership of the means of production and the creation of goods and services for profit – has lost some allure in recent years. However, it is important to know that capitalist systems are not all the same – there are substantial differences among them. Furthermore, the term free market is often used interchangeably with capitalism, but this is a mistake. An article Difference Between Capitalism and Free market clears the confusion:
“Free market is mainly concerned with wealth exchange while capitalism leans more on wealth creation. Free markets are a key component of capitalism although they do not fully define what capitalism is. A free market is driven by ‘demand and supply’ leading to free competition without interference while in capitalism, capital owners can at times influence the terms of trade.”
We can recognize two distinct dimensions here, which are present in the economy of every country and each runs separately on a continuum from one extreme to another (thus different combinations are possible in the economy):
- Private ownership (capitalism) vs. State & collective ownership (socialism)
- “Demand and supply” (free market) vs. State intervention (planned economy)
My position on this is rather complicated: I’m much more in favor of the free market and capitalism than socialism and planned economy. However, I strongly reject free-market capitalism in its purest, libertarian form (even though I have a positive sentiment for some libertarian positions, when not taken to the extreme). I’ll explain my position in detail:
I think that at this stage of human social, spiritual and technological development, free market is simply more efficient than a planned economy, and private ownership gives people better incentives to be productive than socialism would (folks from the Zeitgeist Movement would disagree with me here).
However, there are some parts of an economy where state ownership is perfectly reasonable. I will not discuss here at length about which areas could be defined as key state infrastructure and should therefore be in public sector – I’ll just give one example where privatization is a colossally bad idea: prison system. If you privatize prisons, you give private corporations an incentive to try to influence legislators and judges in such a way that more people would be sent to jail. More prisoners equals bigger profit. Simple. Anyone can see that this would make the whole legal system a joke and would disrupt the very fabric of society. It’s completely unacceptable, even in theory.
A functioning legal system, law enforcement institutions, and reasonable defense capabilities are a necessary part of every society. They should be exclusively in public domain and under tight democratic control. There are many other systems that could be regarded (or not) a public good – such as water resources, fire service, roads, healthcare, education, and social security. I will return to this question later in this series.
On the issue of the second economic dimension (free market vs. state intervention), I also don’t agree with libertarian position. While I’m not in favor of a planned economy, I believe that some regulation of markets is absolutely necessary – especially when public health or safety could be at risk, directly or indirectly (for example via environmental pollution).
Free market alternative seems just absurd to me: under pure free market system, restaurants would follow strict hygienic procedures voluntarily, because they would not want that their customers get sick from food poisoning, as this would lead to losing future customers and possibly get into lawsuits. So, everything is fine, right? Not exactly.
The biggest flaw in libertarian position is that it sees people as entirely rational, all-knowing creatures. But we are not. Some business owners are blinded with short-time gains and don’t even consider long-term consequences. Some are ignorant, because they are preoccupied with other work. Some just like to gamble: if we loosen sanitary measures a little, we can make more money, as probably no one will get sick anyway.
I believe that it’s simply immoral to deregulate markets to such an extent, that people’s health or lives could ever be put in danger because of that.
One libertarian position that makes sense to me is the notion that there isn’t a problem with capitalism per se, but with the type of capitalism that we currently have – which is often not a free-market capitalism at all: in many countries, the existing economic system is closer to state capitalism, where big private corporations capture the power of the state to generate more demand for their goods and services (government contractors), exclude competitors or subsidize losses (e.g. bailout of banks).
The policy-making relationship between special interest groups (representing corporations), legislature, and executive branch of government, is known as the iron triangle. In essence this means that special interest groups give electoral and political support to certain people within the government, who in turn pay them back with friendly legislation, low regulation and special favors.
The best-known example of the iron triangle is probably the military–industrial complex in the United States, which is defined as: policy and monetary relationship between legislators (Congress), national armed forces (Pentagon), and the military industrial base (defense contractors). The sheer size of U.S. military budget is very inviting to the spread of political corruption, but what’s even more important is that the military–industrial complex is quite literally “armed and dangerous”; which is why president Dwight D. Eisenhower warned America in his farewell speech in 1961: “We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist.”
Yet another example of how corporations can benefit at the expense of public good is through “loopholes” in the tax code that save them tons of money. Perhaps most of loopholes are due to incompetence of legislators and their advisors, but we can be pretty sure that some are quite deliberate. The problem is only exacerbated with complicated tax code that even senators and representatives barely comprehend. In my opinion, tax code should be as simple as possible – every adult should be able to understand it.
The world increasingly resembles a corporatocracy (an economic and political system controlled by corporations or corporate interests), where money can buy legislation and pervert the free market. Add to the mix crony capitalism (preferential regulation and other favorable government intervention based on personal relationships) and you’ll get a total mess that is our current system. These dishonest practices can lead to concentration of wealth and political power in the hands of a small, well-connected elite, which by itself puts democracy in jeopardy.
As I have said earlier, I support regulation of markets where it makes sense (consumer protection, environmental regulations, etc.), and I can even live with direct government intervention (government subsidies, tariffs, state monopolies…), if it is done in a transparent way and is subject to democratic control.
However, we should fight political corruption of all shapes and sizes. I realize that it’s a fight that cannot be won; corruption will never be eradicated completely, but it can be contained.
The challenge is twofold: firstly, there are acts that are already illegal (fraudulent business practices, corruption…), but are often – for whatever reason – not being criminally prosecuted, or sentences are inadequate to serve as a deterrent. Secondly, there are acts that are not illegal (in some countries), but should be – the prime example being “institutional corruption”, such as campaign contributions to politicians or political parties.
I believe that the corporate funding of political parties should be completely prohibited. In fact, political parties and candidates should be, for the most part, publicly financed. Private funding should be limited only to political parties’ membership fees and donations from individual citizens, which should be publicly disclosed.
There’s one type of corruption that is particularly insidious, because it’s very hard to fight against it. We can call it an implied payoff. It works like this: lobbyists try to influence a public official to take the action that would benefit a particular corporation or industry sector tremendously; during the conversation they hint, that they would be happy to hire him after he leaves his office. The official then takes the action that was proposed to him. When this official leaves his public office, they hire him for a huge amount of money.
With this type of corruption it doesn’t help much if former public officials are obliged to disclose their income for a number of years after leaving their offices, because all of their income will be earned legally. Yet we have an obvious conflict of interest here. This situation can be described with the metaphor of a revolving door.
I can understand why libertarians are so deeply frustrated with government. However, I don’t share their view that free market can solve every problem. (I will explore limitations of markets in the next part of this series).
As soon as liberty is complete, it dies in anarchy.
- Will Durant
To resolve the problems associated with political corruption, some schools of thought advocate a society with no state at all. Anarchism has historically been an anti-capitalist movement and thus a radical left-wing ideology. Similarly, the libertarian movement has been the anti-statist wing of the socialist movement, so outside the United States, the term libertarianism is commonly considered to be synonymous with left-wing anarchism.
But in the United States, classical liberalism has largely been renamed to libertarianism, which is now generally associated with advocacy of limited government and free-market economy (as well as civil liberties and political freedom). This kind of right-wing libertarianism is a tamer version of anarcho-capitalism (free market anarchism): a radical libertarian political philosophy that advocates the elimination of the state in favor of individual sovereignty in a free market.
For right-wing libertarians a state is a necessary evil that needs to be reduced to a bare minimum, while anarchists from across the political spectrum want to outright abolish it. They believe that living in a stateless society will bring humanity the ultimate freedom and prosperity. I disagree completely.
I think that some sort of government is absolutely necessary to ensure public order and safety in a large-scale society. Modern societies cannot be compared to pre-state tribal societies where everybody knew each other (and these ancient societies shouldn’t be idealized, either).
If state was to disappear, and no other form of government took its place, we would see a huge rise in crime and civil unrest, as there would be no law enforcement. Chaos and instability would force people to organize armed neighborhood watches for protection from gangs, mafias, and ordinary criminals. Alternatively, people would pay these same gangs and mafias to “protect” them (you can substitute the word mafia with private defense agency if you like – in a world without a government that would regulate these agencies, it doesn’t make any difference). Sooner or later some powerful warlords would emerge in different areas. They would conduct occasional warfare between each other and collect “protection fees” from people living in territories they controlled. Effectively, we would return to feudalism.
That’s just one of the possible scenarios of what could happen if state was to disappear. I’m not saying that this hypothetical example is even the most probable. The point that I want to make is that anarchy is an unstable state (no pun intended) – sooner or later its instability will bring about some sort of government; but it may not be the kind that we would like.
Continue to Part 5: Limitations of markets.
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The power of cooperation
Let’s have a close look at how a new layer of cooperation can change the existing system, even though the underlying rules of the game are not eliminated or changed in any way. This doesn’t mean that this is always an option, but it sure does open a new way of looking at the world.
In the United States, the president is elected indirectly via the Electoral College, whose members are chosen by a unique set of rules. Each state is allocated a number of electors that is equal to the joint number of its senators and representatives in the Congress. The District of Columbia is given a number of electors equal to the number held by the smallest state.
The U.S. Constitution establishes that the way of choosing electors is determined within each state by its legislature. Nowadays, each state conducts popular elections to help choose their slate of electors. Most states use a winner-takes-all system, in which the candidate with the most votes in that state receives all of the state’s electoral votes (Maine and Nebraska allow their votes to be split).
Because of this system of indirect vote, presidential candidate can sometimes fail to get the most votes in the nationwide popular vote and still win that election. According to another criticism, the present system encourages political campaigners to focus on a few “swing states” (states in which the outcome of vote is uncertain or close) while ignoring the rest of the country. Polls show that a majority of Americans support the idea of a popular vote for president, and a number of constitutional amendments have been submitted in order to replace the Electoral College with a direct popular vote, but none has been successful so far.
Amending the U.S. Constitution is a difficult task: a proposed amendment must be passed by a 2/3 vote of both houses of Congress (or by a convention called by two-thirds of the states), and then ratified in three-fourths of the states.
Due to lack of consensus for amending the constitution, several states took a different approach: The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC) is an agreement among several states that seeks to replace their current rules for allotting presidential electors with rules that would guarantee the election of the presidential candidate who won the national popular vote. The agreement will go into effect only when the participating states together have an absolute majority in the Electoral College. The participating states would give all of their electoral votes to the national popular vote winner, who would therefore win the presidency by winning more than half of electoral votes.
Currently, eight states and the District of Columbia have joined the compact. Together they have 132 electoral votes, out of 270 electoral votes needed to have a majority in the Electoral College (538 electors). So, NPVIC is almost halfway to being implemented. If and when enough states join the compact, the rules of the presidential race will change – by the virtue of added cooperation between the participating states – without changing the actual electoral process underneath (the Electoral College).
The above example should not be over-hyped. First of all, it’s still just a hypothetical arrangement that hasn’t been implemented yet. It will go into effect only when participating states hold an absolute majority in the Electoral College – realistically, that would require approximately half of the states to join the compact. Secondly, it can only work because states have a constitutional right to choose electors however they want.
Nevertheless, this example gives us a possibility for a whole new outlook on social change. Like U.S. states, which have certain states’ rights, people living in modern democracies have a whole set of constitutional rights and freedoms. They include freedom of thought, opinion and expression, freedom of peaceful assembly and association, and the right to own property alone as well as in association with others. Furthermore, virtually all modern democracies adhere to the principle of “everything which is not forbidden is allowed”.
Empowered with these essential rights and freedoms, a large group of ordinary citizens could theoretically alter the framework of a society, not necessarily by changing the laws of a country, but by establishing a new level of cooperation between them. In fact, implementation of my manifesto (Part 2) stands or falls by people’s ability and willingness to do so.
Human nature and the limits of collectivism
However, for any group endeavor to be successful, it is essential to understand the psychology behind cooperation, as well as to differentiate achievable objectives from wishful thinking. If we want to avoid future disappointments, we should keep in mind that cooperation between people is not unlimited.
As Steven Pinker puts it in his book The Blank Slate:
“The idea that people are instinctively communal is an important precept of the romantic doctrine of the Noble Savage. It figured in the theory of Engels and Marx that “primitive communism” was the first social system, in the anarchism of Peter Kropotkin […] and in the writings of contemporary radical scientists such as Lewontin and Chomsky.”
He quotes Karl Marx, who wrote that a communist society would be:
“The genuine resolution of the antagonism between man and nature and between man and man; it is the true resolution of the conflict between existence and essence, objectification and self-affirmation, freedom and necessity, individual and species. It is the riddle of history solved.”
Pinker comments on the above quote: “It doesn’t get any less tragic or more utopian than that. Marx dismissed the worry that selfishness and dominance would corrupt those carrying out the general will.” As you can probably tell, Pinker sees the world in a much darker, down-to-earth shades. According to him, “all societies – animal and human – seethe with conflicts of interest and are held together by shifting mixtures of dominance and cooperation,” which leaves us in a state of permanent tragedy. He further explains his position: “The Utopian vision that human nature might radically change in some imagined society of the remote future is, of course, literally unfalsifiable, but I think that many of the discoveries recounted in preceding chapters make it unlikely.”
Throughout the book Pinker argues against “tabula rasa” models of the social sciences (the idea that the mind of a newborn is like a “blank slate”). He believes that human mind is substantially shaped by evolutionary psychological adaptations – the product of which is relatively fixed human nature. He seeks to investigate its characteristics: “Studies of altruism by behavioral economists have [… shown] that people are neither the amoral egoists of classical economic theory nor the all-for-one-and-one-for-all communalists of utopian fantasies.” Pinker exposes weaknesses and possible disadvantages of working in or as a group: “When people are part of a group, they pull less hard on a rope, clap less enthusiastically, and think up fewer ideas in a brainstorming session – unless they think their contributions to the group effort are being monitored.”
These findings speak against “sociological tradition” of social sciences, in which society is viewed as a larger superorganism and its individual citizens as mere parts. Pinker writes that “some radical scientists imagine that the only alternative is an Ayn Randian individualism in which every man is an island,” and then offers his solution to this dilemma: “The real alternative to romantic collectivism is not “right-wing libertarianism” but a recognition that social generosity comes from a complex suite of thoughts and emotions rooted in the logic of reciprocity.”
This logic can be illustrated with a quote from The Perfect Storm, a book written by Sebastian Junger. Much of the early part of this “creative non-fiction” book describes the daily lives of the commercial fishermen and their jobs:
“Sword[fish] boat captains help each other out on the high seas whenever they can; they lend engine parts, offer technical advice, donate food or fuel. The competition between a dozen boats rushing a perishable commodity to market fortunately doesn’t kill an inherent sense of concern for each other. This may seem terrifically noble, but it’s not – or at least not entirely. It’s also self-interested. Each captain knows that he may be the next one with the frozen injector or the leaking hydraulics.”
People can be generous – and sincerely so – but sooner or later most of them will ask themselves: What’s in it for me? Any social endeavor or ideology that refuses to recognize and accept this is likely to fail, eventually.
Incentives and disincentives
Let me be clear: Pinker does acknowledge that social arrangements can change if we decide to change them, however, lasting change cannot be made without taking into account constraints of human nature. Not all human nature is bad, though: “For all its selfishness, the human mind is equipped with a moral sense, […] and for all its limitations, human cognition is an open-ended combinatorial system, which in principle can increase its mastery over human affairs, just as it has increased its mastery of the physical and living worlds.”
I pretty much agree with Pinker on this issue. I don’t think we should aim to change human nature, because this may be futile; maybe the best thing we can do is to think creatively and put in place the right incentives and disincentives that will change how people behave – because of their own self-interest.
This statement may seem contrary to the spirit of my manifesto, but it’s not. Firstly, we need to recognize that incentives are not necessarily monetary. People value different things beyond money and material wealth: we value our health, our relationships, nature, security, happiness and peace of mind. Besides, in my manifesto I clearly wrote that the purpose of the proposed societies for sustainable living and self-actualization would also be mutual support and assistance – this can have some monetary benefits for members as well.
On disincentives’ side, every social structure needs certain regulations to deal with people and groups who would want to game the system to their own advantage. Breaking the rules should never be tolerated. We can still hope that human race will eventually evolve above pure self-interest and won’t need “carrot and stick” anymore, but we should not rely on this, because we could be waiting for a very long time.
Our main focus should be on how to improve the society here and now. Theoretical debates about different visions of ideal world may be exciting, but can also be a distraction that prevents us from taking practical steps toward a better future.
Continue to Part 4: Capitalism – A Love Story.
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Taking into account that:
- we live on a limited planet with limited natural resources;
- that our current socio-economic system, which encourages consumerism and materialism, is not able to bring us sustainable development and sustainable living, neither does it promote personal happiness and satisfaction;
- that for reaching sustainability, we need a paradigm shift: changing our focus of consciousness from “having” to “being”;
- that social change is possible only after we reach a critical mass of individuals, who have already changed their own lives or are willing to do so;
- that a person can change his way of living much easier, if he has the support of people with similar values;
Taking into account all of the above, I urge for the establishment of a network of societies (associations) for sustainable living and self-actualization. Following the principle of decentralization, such a society should be formed in every country, state, region or large city. In each territory more than one of such societies could exist and operate at the same time. Each of them should remain independent, but cooperation between them is welcomed.
Societies that already exist can become societies for sustainable living and self-actualization by transforming themselves and aligning with principles set forth in this manifesto. Societies for sustainable living and self-actualization should follow (to the greatest degree possible) these principles:
I. Purpose of societies
The purpose of societies is to bring together individuals who want to live a sustainable lifestyle and pursue self-actualization – individuals who share similar values, have a similar stance on the problems of our modern world and a similar vision for the future: a vision presented in this manifesto.
The purpose of societies is to encourage cooperation between members in all areas of life – personal as well as professional. The purpose of societies is also mutual support and assistance between members. Societies can also organize educational, social and other events that are in some way connected with these activities. Each society can have its own additional purpose.
II. Foundational principles
Members of societies agree upon the following principles, on which the activities of societies are based:
- Basic human needs are certain material goods (food, water, shelter, clothes, footwear, heating…), good social relations, and physical and psychological health
- To satisfy these needs everybody should have an opportunity for employment, access to healthcare, and a safe social environment
- The notion of economic growth is an outdated concept; gross domestic product (GDP) cannot be the measure for defining success of a society – the most important criterion for how successful a society is, should be the degree to which basic human needs of members of a society are met
- Globalization has both positive and negative aspects; to minimize the use of energy for transport we should localize production of goods to the highest possible extent (e.g. local food)
- Fossil fuels should be gradually replaced with alternative energy sources (biomass, wind, sun, geothermal energy, water power, the tides…), and our total energy needs should be reduced (energy-efficient buildings, public transport…)
- Environmental impact of consumer goods should be minimized – we should follow the waste hierarchy (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle); each product should be made in such a way that it lasts for as long as possible
- We should search for a balance between the economy, the society and the environment – this can be done by advocating and implementing social justice, sustainable development, public health, and by slowing down population growth.
- Individuals, who want to be part of downshifting (living a simpler life to escape from the rat race of obsessive materialism and to reduce stress), should be encouraged.
- All of these changes must be implemented in a peaceful and democratic manner, taking into account the rule of law; if the state and its policies are not capable (or willing) of accomplishing these changes, the civil society has the right to self-organize, within the limits of applicable law
- If the laws of the country get in the way of achieving positive social changes, the civil society has the right to use all legitimate means necessary to change these laws (demonstrations, strikes, petitions, lobbying, boycotts, informing the public, finding consensus in society, voting opponents out of power, etc.)
III. Activities of societies
The activities of societies for sustainable living and self-actualization will be as follows:
- Educational activities and information for members
- Organizing lectures, seminars and courses on ecology, sustainable development, sustainable agriculture, green building, health, nutrition, personal development, etc.
- Organizing cooking classes for healthy diet
- Organizing courses on gardening and permaculture
- Providing information about products on the market that pose a threat to health or the environment
- Providing information about products and companies that are in alignment with sustainability principles, are health-beneficial and treat workers fairly
- Protecting the environment and reducing consumption
- Organizing field trips to local organic farms (promoting community-supported agriculture)
- Organizing clothing swaps and other used goods swaps or flea markets
- Organizing environmental volunteer projects (e.g. waste clean-ups, revegetation, environmental monitoring…)
- Planting and cultivating a community garden (if available)
- Creating an ecovillage or an eco-neighborhood for members that want to live in that kind of setting
- Social activities and mutual support
- Organizing social events, trips and picnics
- Organizing charity campaigns (financial and material donations) for members that got into financial difficulties to the extent that their basic human needs could not be met
- Negotiating for discounts and other benefits that members could use with various companies and producers – especially with organic farmers and merchants of ecological products
- Legal and organizational assistance for members who want to establish a social enterprise (cooperative, mutual organization, social business, charity organization…) or start their own business
- Developing and deploying web applications for social change
(To speed up development and to serve the common good, all such applications should be licensed as open-source software. Other groups with computer programming skills may be invited to collaborate on this endeavor and already existing open-source software may be utilized. Alternatively, existing commercial applications and services may be used, for as long as they provide acceptable solutions. In addition, offline solutions to some of these problems can also be implemented, though their utility will be limited).
- Deploying a web application for donating, lending, trading or swapping items (e.g. cars, clothes, furniture, tools…) or offering services (carpooling, hitchhiking, house sitting, hospitality exchanges…)
- Deploying a web application for crowd funding – for donating, lending or investing money to socially beneficial or green projects. Whether loaning money with interest is allowed or not, is up for each society to decide.
- Establishing LETS (Local Exchange Trading System) between members of a society. Web application for LETS should enable that a part of a payment could be made in national currency, allowing for any potential taxes to be paid.
- Establishing publicly accessible database of products on the market that pose a threat to health or the environment, as well as products and companies that are in alignment with sustainability principles, are health-beneficial and treat workers fairly. Database should be accessible on the internet and through mobile application for smartphones – users should be able to check if a particular product is in the database by capturing its barcode with digital camera on their phone. All information in this database should be protected with Creative Commons license.
- Public relations and commitments
- Promoting societies in social and mass media and acquiring new members
- Creating a website and an internet forum for each society
- Promoting sustainable development, healthy lifestyle and personal development
- Promoting lifestyle that puts less emphasis on acquisition of unnecessary material goods. Instead, more time and money is put into activities that benefit health and strengthen interpersonal relationships (sport, relaxation, cultural events, vacation…)
- Advocating tolerance, democracy and human rights, equality before the law, and peace in the world
IV. Umbrella organization(s)
Societies for sustainable living and self-actualization can establish an international umbrella organization. This organization should have no direct influence on the workings of its members (the societies), however it will have the authority to give advice and to coordinate some of the larger projects. The organization will:
- Organize international conferences/teleconferences for members to discuss current problems and assignments
- Coordinate development of open-source web applications for social change, that have been described above
- Maintain an official website, which should enable users to find any member society in their own or any other region of the world
- Oversee the statutes and workings of its member societies. If misalignment with the core values of the organization (principles set forth in this manifesto) is detected, the organization can issue an opinion or start a procedure for expelling the rogue society
Societies, groups and organizations other than societies for sustainable living and self-actualization, can also be part of the umbrella organization (as associate members), if their purpose is in the spirit of this manifesto.
In principle there could be more than one global umbrella organization, and there will be many regional ones. New ones can be formed as needed. The whole system of societies and their umbrella organizations should function much like a network and therefore had minimal hierarchical structure. With no strict hierarchy, there will be no single point of failure.
In the next several posts I expand on some of the issues mentioned above. The following writing can also be considered as being a theoretical foundation for my manifesto. Continue to Part 3: Cooperation and human nature.
Recently, by sheer coincidence, I stumbled upon Zeitgeist: Moving Forward, a 2011 documentary by Peter Joseph, the third film in a series. This film really caught my attention as it tries to solve an ancient question, which occupied my mind for a long time as well: what kind of society should we strive for? Although the focus of this blog is not how to change the society, I have decided that, since no man is an island, I will occasionally write about social change, too.
I am no fan of the Zeitgeist Movement and I haven’t really watched the first two of the Zeitgeist documentaries in its entirety (only a few short clips). This film, however, was so interesting to me that it prompted me to watch it from the beginning to the end, even though its running time is 2 hours and 41 minutes!
Although film is thought provoking, remarkably well done and also has some humorous bits in it, I don’t agree with the proposed solution. I agree with most of its analysis of the current state of the world, but the vision of so-called resource-based economy (which was defined by Jacque Fresco and his Venus Project) seems utopian to me. I am convinced that it is completely unattainable in any foreseeable future, and I suspect that it may even be outright impossible.
It is based on a faith that science and technology alone can solve every problem. It proposes massive social engineering, unprecedented in human history – such as a complete abolishment of monetary system, market system, and even labor for income gain, which it views as the root causes for all our problems: in a resource-based economy, there would be no money at all. (Segment of the film, which deals with our current monetary system, makes some huge oversimplifications, probably due to film being too long already – for more in-depth understanding of this topic watch Money as Debt trilogy by Paul Grignon).
Frankly, I think that much of the appeal of the Venus Project, comes from the visuals – nice, futuristically looking models of the cities of the future, with cars automatically operated by satellite navigation, automation of labor (robots and machines do everything), and a picture of a sail boat, where you can spend you free time – which would be all the time. It makes your imagination to soar.
But it’s not just that. These people honestly believe that this would be the best system to live in: a global economy, controlled by computers for optimal results and maximum sustainability, where every human need is taken care of. In fact, it is a variation on a theme by Karl Marx: From each machine according to its abilities, to each human according to his needs. In resource-based economy human work – all completely voluntary – is limited to scientific research, innovation and creativity, and supervision of the system. The film preemptively deals with a critique, that this kind of society would not be possible due to incompatibility with human nature. The first part of the film discusses at length that nature vs. nurture debate is a false dichotomy; that it is impossible to understand how biology works outside the context of an environment. That’s fine and correct.
However, the film then tries to convince us, that in that case, we can overcome any restriction of human nature, if we try hard enough. That is questionable at the very least, and possibly false. There are other questionable statements there: like the one that native tribes – living in an environment free of corrupting effects of civilization – had much lower incidence of violence than societies with more developed civilization. This idealized view of life in hunter-gatherer societies, known by the term Noble Savage, is disputed by some scholars – Steven Pinker argues in his book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, that primitive societies had rather high incidence of violence, such as inter-tribal warfare.
But even if we did believe that people have no innate shortcomings that can’t be overcome by positive social environment, even if we did believe in unlimited malleability of human society that can be reshaped as we wish, and that society which is envisioned in this film could indeed exist and prosper, the big question would remain: how do we get there?
The film offers no practical solutions in that respect and that is it’s biggest flaw. It doesn’t even try. Building the society of the future is described hypothetically, in a “what if” game. What if we discovered a planet that was identical to Earth, except that it would have no human civilization yet? How would we go about and populated this planet with humans? The film at this point feels like some sort of multi-player strategy computer game.
Two things are needed to reach a destination: first, a vision of where you want to go, and second, a plan of getting there. Zeitgeist: Moving Forward is unfortunately not moving forward at all – it only knows where it wants to end up, but doesn’t give us any idea in which direction to go, which practical steps to take – not at some future time, but things we could implement right now. Of course, it is clear to everybody that you can’t strip the Earth of its civilization and start building from scratch. But all that this film does is suggesting that change will somehow happen by itself, suddenly, after people have had enough and they organize global demonstrations against the system – something similar to Occupy Wall Street protests, only much more massive.
Well, I don’t have much faith in revolutions of any kind. Usually they just change a few people at the top, but the system remains almost the same; or worse yet, anarchy and violence ensue, and people then become willing to trade freedom for safety, which can give rise to various oppressive regimes. I believe that gradual progress is the only right way to go. And for that you have to have a transition plan, a blueprint for the evolution of society that you want. Huge jumps are impossible – resource-based economy will develop gradually, overtime – or not at all.
Still, I have huge respect for the makers of this film. At least they outlined what the problems are and have a vision for the future. They are doing something about it: trying to educate public about what is wrong in our society and start a debate about possible solutions.
It worked with me: this film incited me to think about this subject once again and I came out with my own proposal for changing the world. I drafted a manifesto for changing the paradigm of being, which you can find in Part 2 of this article.
The basic premises for my manifesto were that outward changes in our society could only be the result of inward changes in individuals. And society at large will change only after a big segment of population went through change in their own lives. Secondly, things can be accelerated if those individuals that are ready to embrace change group together and work together on changing themselves and the world. Thirdly, although I don’t reject the global approach which can be facilitated by the internet, we should not forget about the power of local approach: people live most of their lives in a local community, have most of their friends and relatives coming from the same local environment and have to deal with their local problems – that is why I primarily support local approach and decentralization.
Without further ado, here is Part 2: Manifesto.
To watch Zeitgeist: Moving Forward click here.