As I’m sure is obvious from some of my recent posts, I’ve been thinking a lot about moral obligations as well as economic systems. Right now, I’m very dissatisfied with capitalism as it stands today. It has turned our culture into an obsessive consumerism. It does much to perpetuate poverty and oppression. It forces people to, in effect, continually sell themselves and their labour in order to feed their family. Somehow this has become “normal” and accepted, and I’m not sure why. So I’ve been doing some research on alternative forms of economic systems. I have looked into communism and various forms of socialism. I have also read up on participatory economics; I’m not sure that I like it, but I think it’s an interesting form of economics that has some promise. Right now, the system I like best is free market socialism, which avoids the central government planning that was used in areas like the Soviet Union and instead keeps the market structure, but uses worker cooperatives to allow workers to own the means of production. In essence, it gives ownership of the business to the workers themselves. I find this a fairly satisfying alternative to traditional corporate capitalism, but right now all my conclusions in this are tentative. I want to do more research, especially since I’m not an economic expert.
But I wanted to write a little more on the subject of morality and economics. I think morality in general is an important topic. It seems to get frequently forgotten. People don’t talk much about morality anymore. I mean, there are the hot-button issues like abortion and same-sex marriage and racism and such, but I’m talking about more mundane morality. Stuff like, is it ethical for me to buy luxury goods while others face poverty? Is it right for me to eat meat if eating less of it can help fight against hunger? What changes do we need to make to society to make it more moral and just? I don’t hear these sorts of things talked about much – not in the general population, anyway. How can we talk for so long about American Idol or the latest episode of Lost, and not talk about the critical issues of morality that affect us all? It doesn’t make sense to me. We are so hung up on meaningless trivialities that the important things, the things that need to be discussed, are left unsaid. It’s a tragedy.
But I want to change that. Unfortunately, I have only one mouth that I can operate, but I must do my part to operate it well. I trust that others will begin to do the same. We need to stop our banal chatter and small talk and start talking about things that really matter. It’s the only way a society can truly grow and flourish.
There has been a lot said in the past year about “the economy.” Politicians have been so intensely focused on fixing “the economy,” and I have to stop and ask myself, “Why?” I mean, I know, the economy matters to a lot of people in very real ways. If the economy goes down, unemployment goes up, and people lose their ability to feed their families. That’s a problem. But I have to wonder if the politicians are more concerned with people feeding their families, or with making sure that the ethereal concept of “the economy” starts growing again so that they look favourable to the voters. It lends itself well to hard numbers that one can point to and say, “Look what I’ve done!” But I don’t think that we should be concerned about numbers. We need to be concerned about people. And the truth is that there are many solutions to solve the problem of feeding families. Fixing the economy is not the only way. But somehow, they’ve convinced us that it is, and that we should all be worried about this man-made concept that the general population doesn’t quite entirely grasp, but likes to talk about a lot because it makes them feel smart. Somehow, fixing the economy is seen as the only solution to “the problem” – and here the problem gets left undefined as some vague terror that never quite comes into focus.
So I ask, why should we care about the economy? Why should I care whether Canada produces more wealth this year than it did last year? Really, why? I don’t care. What I do care about (or should care about) is whether Canadians – and others – can fulfill their most basic needs and live with dignity. If somehow the solution to world poverty was destroying the economy, I’d do it in a heartbeat. Of course, it’s not that simple, but this is where our priorities should lie – with people, not with concepts. And we need to remember that, because it’s all to easy to set up “the economy” as the grand be-all-end-all that deserves prime importance. And when you think of it in those terms, it seems pretty ridiculous. We should only value the economy so long as it leads to an improvement to the human condition – and no more. And in particular, we should only value it so long as it leads to improvement to the condition of the poor. Because let’s face it, most of the economic growth that we so treasure goes straight into the pockets of those who are already rich. It’s how the model is set up. And why should we care about making the rich richer?
In “The Matrix: Reloaded,” there’s a line that has always stuck out to me. There’s a discussion going on in Zion, the last human stronghold against the machines, between a commander in the army and a governing councillor. The commander is furious that the councillor allowed Morpheus to take one of their ships on (what seems like) a ridiculous mission when he knew that a huge swarm of machines was coming to attack them. The commander says, “I believe I’m going to need every ship we have if we’re going to survive this attack.” The councillor replies, “I understand that, Commander.” The commander angrily asks back, “Then why did you allow the Nebuchadnezzer [the ship] to leave?”And the councillor calmly speaks, “Because I believe our survival depends on more than how many ships we have.” I’m not quite sure why I’ve always loved this line, but it came to me as I thought about this issue with the economy. It shows how the commander has a single focus: more ships = greater likelihood of success. But in the process, he has made “getting more ships” his goal and lost sight (to some extent, anyway) of the ultimate goal: success. The councillor, on the other hand, was willing to take one of these valuable ships away because he felt that it would be better served elsewhere. He was able to see the big picture and keep focused on the real goal.
I’m sure everyone is sick of hearing about the recession and about the economy. It’s been all over the news. But the incredible urgency of getting the economy back on track has tended to drown out all other potential goals. Why should we be so concerned with having a prosperous society if all that wealth is held in the hands of a few? Why should we be putting so much time and effort into that? I am arguing here that we need to look for a far loftier goal: we want to have a society built on ethics, justice, freedom, and human dignity. And that goal is not realized by a blind pursuit of profit. It is built on the foundation of cooperation, of generosity, and a reorientation of our values away from money and towards something much more worthy. We cannot continue to support the status quo, because the status quo is not getting us to where we should want to go. And it never will. I don’t argue for social change lightly. I wish it was as simple as meeting with public leaders at the G-20 and getting them to make a simple change and fix everything. I wish that a moral and just society could be built on the foundation of what we already have. But I fear that’s not possible.
Capitalism has led to incredible growth, wealth, and innovation. But why are these the measures of the success of a society? Why do I care whether our society is innovative if it is achieved with greed, corruption, and borne on the backs of the poor? Our economic system has institutionalized a form of slavery (albeit mild) that we see as perfectly natural and normal. (Think about it: how does one feed one’s family without selling their labour to others? Well, I guess everyone could own their own farms, and build their own houses, and sew their own clothes. But where does one get the raw materials for this with no money, and when most materials have already been claimed by others? It’s very difficult, if not impossible, to avoid selling your labour for the profit of others. And that’s what it is: they may pay you $10 for your work, but they’ve made $100 for it.) If growth, prosperity, and innovation comes at the cost of our own morality, then I want no part of it. Morality is primary here. Without it, what are we? Well, I guess we’re just money-hungry consumers who are only concerned with one person: ourselves. But that’s pathetic.
I offer my words here not to start a revolution, or to offer a solution, or even be a detailed critique of our current system. No, my point here is that morality must be our primary concern. We must keep our focus on the real goal of improving the fate of humanity as a whole, of doing good to our fellow man. All else comes second. And though I think that’s something that most people would agree with, somehow we tend to be able to push it out of our minds. We vocalize support for something we put no effort toward improving. But those are empty words if we have no intention of disrupting the status quo. Whatever should be done, we must do. There is no other option. If we truly, actually believe that morality comes before money, then we should be willing to do whatever it takes to accomplish that. But somehow…I think most of us (myself included) are secretly content to pay lip service but nothing else. And speaking morality with no intention of moral action is the saddest poverty of all.