Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Is a fair economy the right goal?

Life has never been nor ever will be fair. How can a miracle be fair? In the unimaginably vast emptiness of space, a persistent yet dynamic pattern of chemical reactions among the remnants of a supernova somehow took form, and you were born. You did not ask for this to happen. You did not sign a contract before the organic material in your mother’s womb started self-organizing and self-replicating. Life is many things wonderful and horrific, but it most certainly does not come with contractual guarantees. I don’t know what to call this arrangement other than a miraculous gift.

I believe we all know this is true on some level, yet we spend most of our waking lives working and spending in an economy built around contractual reciprocity. All forms of money that have ever existed were designed to enable someone’s idea of “fair” exchange. What makes economic questions so vexing is that everyone has a different idea about what “fair” actually means.

Some say charging interest isn’t “fair” as it forces society to continuously lose ground on an endless treadmill of growth and consumption. Some believe it isn’t “fair” to tax wealthy “hard-working” people more than the poor, and some believe just the opposite. Some believe inflation isn’t “fair” because what you eventually get for your money is less than what you gave up to get it. All the rhetoric I have ever come across on this issue, in one way or another, indulges a uniquely human fixation: how to make sure the Universe gives us what we think we deserve.

I ask you, is that any way to hold the miraculous gift of life? When, exactly, did the Universe start owing us anything? To become endlessly enthralled in the particulars of constructing a “fair” economy is to miss the most precious things there are about life, its spontaneity, its creativity, and its mystery. How tragic that we spend so much time worrying about whether we are getting a “fair” deal, when there is so much beauty in every direction.

So what then am I proposing? A return to vicious rivalries based on violent exploitation? Definitely not. For most of humanity’s brief time on this Earth, economies were small in scale and almost entirely gift-based. Even today, we operate within a gift economy among our families and close friends. We instinctually know how to do this on a small scale, but until the advent of modern communications technology, the gift economy’s ability to operate on a large scale was limited.

Today, we are seeing some inspiring glimpses of what might be in store for the next stage of our economic evolution. It would be impossible to overstate the value the open-source software movement has provided the world. Projects like Wikipedia demonstrate that knowledge can be collaboratively created and shared across a large section of the population outside of conventional markets. And there is even a growing open-source hardware movement developing designs for everything from microprocessors to cars and farm machinery. While most of our economy still resides in the space of markets and contracts, endeavors such as these prove that other possibilities do exist.

There is no doubt in my in my mind that meeting today’s global challenges depends on pulling together as one human family. We can no longer afford to blame any “them” for our problems. There is only us. We must somehow learn to extend the same kind of empathetic bonds we have with close friends and family to all of humanity, no matter where we may live, what we may look like, or what our cultures may value. We must learn to see every person on this planet with the same awe and reverence as we do our own family and friends. It is this feeling of reverence that bypasses any hint of worry about what our kin “owe” us for our gifts. If we are constantly worrying about the “fairness” of the economy, where is this space of reverence for our love to blossom? Love does not grow under the stringency of contractual obligation, but out of the light touch of sincere gratitude.

Can this "gratitude economy" provide all the modern comforts we’re used to? Perhaps one day, perhaps not. But no one ever said we had to tear down the current system before we begin solving our problems. I imagine the way forward is through nurture rather than destruction. As Lynne Twist has said, “What you appreciate, appreciates.” I believe the gratitude economy can scale. I believe we will develop the capacity for global reverence, not out of youthful idealism, but out of evolutionary necessity.


  1. Hi Alan! While I strongly agree with the premises of your post, I want to stay diligent to keep quotable, pillar statements as accurate as possible. In framing for a gratitude economy and an awareness of values in exchange, I'm going to disagree with the line:

    "When, exactly, did the Universe start owing us anything?"

    It isn't the Universe we're asking to be fair. You mentioned charging interest, taxes and inflation... these are not things of the Universe, they are man-made processes and systems created and decided by us and for us. Slavery isn't fair, either, but the argument that the Universe isn't naturally fair is certainly no argument for slavery. We should be fair and firm with each other (a) simply because we can, and (b) because it builds a foundation for human dignity.

    When it comes to agreements we make with ourselves, and systems we design for ourselves and our children, I would say it is quite appropriate to expect "fairness" be an explicit and weighty value.

    I think what you mean is:
    (a) The Universe is not responsible for fairness or compassion; these are things we as humans create and do - so let us learn to do them well; and
    (b) the first step to move on to better solutions is to accept the cards we've been dealt... it may not be the fairest hand, but it is where we are and since we, as self-governing citizens, essentially deal the next hand, it's time to stop blaming the past and start building the future.

  2. Hi Katin. Thanks for you thoughtful response to this post.

    You bring up the question of slavery, which, of course, is about the least fair institution our modern society can imagine. However, it is an extremely unfortunate truth that those societies who have practiced slavery have found ways to justify it, thereby making it seem "fair." Sometimes slavery has been justified by the logic that "to the winners go the spoils." Sometimes slavery has been justified by the belief that the enslaved people are somehow less human. In either case, cultures that have practiced slavery seem to have genuinely believed that what they were doing was "fair."

    Fast forward to the modern age. Even though I don't personally believe this, one could pretty easily make the point that it isn't "fair" to tax "hard-working Americans" more than the lazy. In fact, almost any political divide can be described in terms of what different groups of people think is "fair."

    With this piece I hope to suggest that fairness is neither a good indicator for the health of society nor an achievable goal for change-makers, as each group of people will undoubtably have different perspectives on what is
    "fair." Therefore, I think we should be thinking about ways to transcend the notion entirely. Whether or not slavery is "fair", it is not something that happens in a healthy thriving stable society. Thankfully, today we don't have to convince anyone that slavery is a horrible idea, but there remain many instituions in society that are extremely unhealthy yet some people believe are "fair."

    To challenge these institutions on the basis of "fairness" only implies that proponents of the status-quo are morally culpable. Most people when accused of being "evil" only become more entrenched in their positions, as they are forced to strengthen their moral justifications for their actions. Therefore, it seems the health argument has a much greater transformational potential.

    Furthermore, beyond questions of how to communicate ideas for change, being out of the mindset of fairness and moral outrage is quite liberating. It is much easier to stay centered if one perceives addressing social problems as less about battling evil and more about fostering health. More the mindset of a doctor, less the mindset of a cop or preacher.