Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Abundance and Self-Realization

I'm looking at Robert Fogel's The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism, starting here.

Distribution of income matters less than distributiion of "spiritual resources", he says. That means there is a tendency in the "Fourth Awakening" to refocus on the individual again, rather than material conditions in society as a whole.

I have often talked about abundance on this blog, such as here and here. Fogel also emphasizes the saturation of material goods.

Our society is so well saturated with consumer durables, in fact, that even the poorest fifth of households are well-endowed with them. Consequently, the era of the household accumulation of consumer durables, which sparked the growth of many manufacturing industries in the many decades following World War II, is largely over in the United States. p189

So where are things going? Meaning becomes more important as survival challenges recede.

Today, people are increasingly concerned with what life is all about. That was not an issue for the ordinary individual in 1880, when nearly the whole day was devoted to earning the food, clothing and shelter needed to sustain life. A half century from now, perhaps even sooner, when increases in productivity make it possible to provide goods in abundance with half today's labor, the issue of life's meaning, and other matters of self-realization, will take up the bulk of discretionary time. p 191-192

Health and leisure time will be the focus of the future economy, although, he says, it is difficult to foresee the details.

The point is that leisure-time activities (including lifelong learning) - volwork - and health care are the growth industries of the late twentieth century and the early twenty-firsty. They will spark economic expansion during our age, just as agriculture did in the eighteenth century and the early nineteenth and as manufacturing, transportation and utilities didin the late nineteenth century and much of the twentieth. The growing demand for health-care services is due primarily, not to a distortion of the price system, but to the increasing effectiveness of medical intervention. p201

What does self-realization mean? Interestingly, Maslow is not mentioned at all, nor are the older classical ideas about virtue in any detail. Instead, Fogel develops his own list.

To those philosophers who have developed the concept, self-realization means the fullest development of the virtuous aspects of one's nature. ..Of all the maldistributed spiritual resources, sense of purpose may be the most important. p205

Others include "a vision of opportunity", "a sense of the mainstream of work and life" which means a sense of where opportunities are and how to pursue them. There must be "a sense of community", an "ability to engage with diverse groups", which entails an "ethic of benevolence". As self-realization is often achieved through an occupation, a "work ethic" and "sense of discipline" are required, as well focus and a "capacity to resist the lure of hedonism". There needs to be a "capacity for self-education", a "thirst for knowledge". an "appreciation of quality", and some "self-esteem." p205-206

To this updated list of virtues he adds a sense of balance or, as Aristotle would put it, the golden mean.

Each of the fifteen spiritual resources just outlined must be possessed in moderation. There is an optimal amount of each spiritual resource, which will vary from one individual to another. Too much of a sense of purpose turns dedication into ruthlessness. Too little sense of purpose may cause one to be uncompetitive in a given pursuit. p207

It isn't quite a virtue ethics, perhaps, as it is more a list of desirable psychological attributes, being well-adjusted rather than arete or excellence. But it comes close. It is not utilitarian, nor based on more simplistic ideas about happiness. It is certainly reconcilable with older virtues such as courage or temperance or practical wisdom. It is also reconcilable with other ideas we have looked at, such as the evolution of the economy from manufacturing to services to experiences to, finally, transformation of individuals, or the requirements for individual flourishing.

What it does not do (and no book can do everything) is explain what happens to labor markets and economic incentives when material needs are saturated. How might a post-scarcity economy work? How will people make a living?

In all, it is quite a radical book for an academic economist. It is also politically quite eclectic - egalitarian, but taking religion seriously; interested in the condition of the poor but skeptical of government intervention. It asks the right questions, even if the answers are not wholly developed.

The basic conclusion is income is no longer a suitable end-point for policy discussions. Nor are national income statistics. Like the rich sons of Athens two thousand years ago, the nature of the good life is the main question that confronts us once material needs are saturated. Even some Nobel Prizewinners in Economics can see that.

 

 

 

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