What is wrong, and why we can’t seem to fix it

Throughout most of my life I have been living under conservative governments, and the nicest way I can find to describe political conservatism is to say that it embodies the popular phrase ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. However, as we all know there are many things wrong at present, and they need fixing. No amount of ignoring them will make them go away. This blog is about those awkward facts of world that won’t go away and which political conservatism won’t make go away either.

What I’m going to aim to do is post a blog once a week, on a Friday, so you can digest it over the weekend. The next week’s blog will either be the next in my series, or a discussion of issues that have arisen from the comments.

I’m going to have a very strict comments policy, comment will only be accepted if they are intelligent and polite contributions to discussion around the topic of the post. Everything else will be moderated.

If you find a blog here sympathetic, you might consider reading the blogs from the beginning, as they are supposed to be a more or less continuous argument.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Impediments 10: Status

Last week we were looking at the fetish for growth of the economic and population kinds, and I quoted Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations to the effect that the desire for greater wealth personally and in society has ‘no limit or certain boundary’. Elsewhere in that work Smith describes the desire for greater wealth in another striking passage:

With regard to profusion, the principle which prompts to expence [ie extravagance], is the passion for present enjoyment; which, although sometimes very violent and very difficult to be restrained, is in general only momentary and occasional. But the principle which prompts to save, is the desire of bettering our condition, a desire which, though generally calm and dispassionate, comes with us from the womb, and never leaves us till we go into the grave. In the whole interval which separates those two moments, there is scarce perhaps a single instant in which any man is so perfectly and completely satisfied with his situation, as to be without any wish of alternation or improvement of any kind. (II iii (363))

Here Smith is distinguishing between older style public display of wealth (which he regards as an aristocratic mode of social display, antithetical to the continued development of the ‘wealth of nations’) and the newer, more rational sort he favours. However, as a professor of moral philosophy, he recognises the relentlessness of the desire for ‘bettering our condition’, and, as history has demonstrated, through the course of modernity this ‘rational’ desire has led us to the mess we are in at the moment, our chronic ecological debt and our inability to do anything about it.

In various other places in The Wealth of Nations Smith diagnoses the strength of the desire for betterment as really a struggle for status vis a vis other people. And indeed here evolutionary biology agrees that humans, as is the case with other primates, beyond simple survival are primarily concerned with their status within their society. In human societies with few resources people try to modify their status by acquiring new information and knowledge, especially of religious rituals and the like, and their skills, ie of hunting, warfare &c. They can also enhance their status with personal relationships, for example, for men, taking several wives.
In societies with more resources, then hierarchies develop and societies tend to have hereditary privilege. However stored and surplus resources also make it easier to display and compare wealth and they tend to exacerbate the competition for status: if status is hereditary then it should follow that only the families of high status have wealth, however, other people can strive to acquire wealth and influence and the possibility begins of these nouveau riche individuals supplanting the older families of privilege... welcome to human history.

To my mind this is the primary factor that drives people’s desire that there be more and more wealth in each generation, only if there is greater and greater wealth can people be assured that there is still a path to upward social mobility that is negotiable without too much savage strife. As I’ve noted before, this is sad, this is the human condition, but while humanity remains at reasonable levels of population and its demands aren’t excessive, then so what? male baboons have red bottoms, humans want wealth. However, when we have excessive global population levels and excessive economic demands being put on the biosphere, then clearly our evolutionary heritage is serving only to push us towards extinction.

This is why I have suggested that we need to think about limiting our population, with fewer people around our economic demands are not so excessive, and also because there is less pressure from a high population then people are less stressed about status anyway (lab rats kept in high density accommodation will kill each other regardless of how well-fed they are, there is no reason to think humans do not have similar motivation).

However, within our society we can do more to promote the idea of status not being tied to wealth. I am not naïve enough to think that humans will ever stop trying to compete with each other, however, perhaps in a society with declining population people will be relaxed enough to find ways to enhance their status that are not connected with wealth—growing prize pumpkins or something similar.

We also need to look across society at how the desire for status warps our institutions. For example, both in the public and private sectors to is easy to find examples of organisations, or sections within organisations which exist merely because of the need for status of some individual or other. For example a company might set up a unit in a research division to develop a new product, but the staffing is way in excess of the level needed because X, the new head of the unit, can’t be seen to be running a unit with fewer people than Y, someone else in the company who runs a research unit. What we need is a facility in these cases for saying to X, ‘we’re not disrespecting your experience or skills, it’s just you don’t need 50 staff, 20 will do—Y has 50 staff because the project his team is working on requires it’.

Earlier in this series of blogs I suggested that society should have extensive involvement of citizens’ panels, and I would imagine that adjudicating these situations would be some of their more valuable functions.

As well as individuals and organisations being warped by status-competition, the same applies to nations. It would require several blogs this length to begin to catalogue the activities that nations engage in merely because of status. Indeed there is even competition over the measure of economic activity most commonly jused, GDP.

It’s cliché of political analysis to say that GDP is a very bad way of measuring progress in society. From what I have been arguing in these blogs it’s obvious that I agree with this sentiment (and I have been hearing this argument for 30 years or more, so why, I wonder, do we still use this index?). However, I also have to say that I do not think the substitution of another index of progress such as the Happy Planet Index is a such a good idea. Although this index is a useful corrective to growth economics (the latest HPI has Costa Rica at the top and Australia way down at 102), I think if we followed this index instead of GDP we would simply compete about happiness and be unhappy because we weren’t near the top of the list—that’s how status driven people are. Perhaps we should just forswear indices of all kinds, and with them, our obsession with status.

Next week: Children

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