To know what to do is not enough
For the past year I’ve been writing a book on prosperity, by which I mean widespread affluence. It’s been slow going, not because I don’t believe I know the general technical requirements of prosperity (I do, if I didn’t, I shouldn’t be wasting anyone’s time, including mine, writing the book), but because the real problem isn’t the technical details like eliminating bottlenecks, or redistributing income, or setting up positive feedback loops, or avoiding fraud, or stopping financialization, or any of the dozens of other subjects I either visit at chapter length or touch on briefly. The problem as with, say, stopping smoking, isn’t so much what to do, it is how it comes that we do it. When do we make the decision we’re willing to do what it takes, sufferer the negative consequences of getting to a better place, and then push ourselves through those consequences?
This is a huge problem in individuals, as the weight loss, addiction, psychology, psychiatry and self-help industries attest. There is, generally, more money in not solving a problem, as drug makers with their palliatives understand, than in solving it. The people who have power and money and influence in the status quo are not sure that in a new world, with a new economy, and the new ethics which must undergird that new economy, they will be on top. They are right to believe so. They are creatures of the current world, and in being created, have created the world they are unsteady masters of. Their ethics and morals, their way of business, of living, of apportioning power and influence and money must go if there is to be widespread affluence. Their methods have been tried for 40 odd years now, and if measured against the human weal, have failed. They will not, they cannot adapt, not as a group. They were not selected for the skills it takes to create a new type of affluent society, they have not even been able to maintain the mass affluence of the old society, and not just because they have not wanted to. They would be a different elite, made up of different people with different ethics, talents and skills if they did want to.
Ordinary people also have the wrong ethics, the wrong morality. Much is written about why consumerism is bad, but the ultimate problem of consumerism is not how it makes us feel but that the consumer passively chooses from a menu created by others, not to fill the consumer’s real needs, but to benefit those who created the menu. Such a passive people cannot understand that choosing choices without creating choices is not choice, it is the illusion of choice.
So while my book has a lot of general principles of the sort which books on prosperity often have, such as about trade, and productivity and technological change, that isn’t the most important part. The part that matters isn’t about the technical requirements of prosperity, it’s about why and when people do what is required to achieve prosperity, and when they don’t. And when, having obtained it, they throw it away.
Our society is ours. A tautology, but one we forget too often. As individuals we often feel powerless, as a mass, we have created our own society. There are real constraints, physical constraints on what society we can have, based on the resources we have, the technology we have mastered and what we understand about ourselves and our world, but those constraints are not, right now, so tight as to preclude widespread affluence, to preclude prosperity.
They are, however, tight enough to preclude continuing to do the same thing, led by the same sorts of people, and expect anything but decline, repeated disasters and eventual catastrophe. We can be affluent and prosperous, we can spread that affluence and prosperity to those who do not have it now, but we cannot do it if we insist on keeping the current forms of our economy, including our current forms of consumption. This does not mean doing with less, it means doing with different things, valuing different things. Those new values will be better for us, objectively, they will make us both happier and healthier, just as most addicts are happier once they’ve broken their addiction, or rather once they’ve gone through withdrawal and rebuilt their lives.
We can choose not to do so. We have, in certain respects, already chosen not to do so, as with our refusal to do anything about climate change until it is too late (the two problems are combined, climate change is a subset of the political and economic problems we have). We can, also, choose to make the necessary changes, not only to avoid the worst catastrophes (disasters are now inevitable, there are consequences to failure, stupidity and greed), but to create an actual, better, world, a world in which the vast majority are healthier, happier and doing work they care about.
The monster facing us, as usual, is us. The monsters are always us, our brothers and sisters, and the one in the mirror. And it is those monsters I’ve been wrestling this past year.