Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Fourth Great Awakening

I read Robert Fogel's The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism over the holidays, and it is a very interesting book. Fogel is a Nobel Laureate in Economics (1993) , mostly for his earlier quantitative economic history and study of the historical economics of slavery in the US. Perhaps he felt liberated to write a much more original book, published in 2000. Yet it is based on deep knowledge of US history.

He focuses on the impact of the waves of religious revival in the US on broader growth and public policy. The main challenge for egalitarianism now is not material redistribution, he says, but the maldistribution of "spiritual resources."

The agenda for egalitarian policies that has dominated reform movements for most of the past entry - what I call the modernist egalitarian agenda - was based on material redistribution. The critical aspect of the postmodern egalitarian agenda is not the distribution of money income, or food, or shelter, or consumer durables. Although there are still glaring inadequacies in the distribution of material commodities that must be addressed, the most intractable maldistributions in rich countries such as the United States are in the realm of spiritual or immaterial assets. These are the critical assets in the struggle for self-realization. p2

Traditional measures of income inequality are inadequate. They ignore consumption of leisure and improved health, for example.

They focus on a variable - money income - that currently accounts for less than half of real consumption and that in a generation may account for less than a quarter of real consumption. Such measures shed little light on the most intractable forms of poverty (those related to the unequal distribution of spiritual resources). Nor do they bear on the capacity of individuals to overcome the social estrangement that undermines their quality of life. p3

So a politics based on income transfers is exhausted. That naturally leads to consideration of the good life.

A good place to begin a consideration of the content of a postmodern egalitarian agenda is with Socrates' question, What is the good life? That was a crucial question not only for the sons of rich Athenians but for the sons of the landed rich throughout history. Freed of the need to work to satisfy their material needs, they sought self-realization in public service, military adventures, philanthropy, the arts, theology, ethics and moral philosophy. p2

Naturally, I felt a huge sense of recognition and agreement at this point, as I believe that without some sense of the good life public action is empty. Fogel adds another twist. State action cannot redistribute such spiritual resources.

Realization of the potential of an individual is not something that can be legislated by the state, nor can it be provided to the weak by the strong. It is something which must develop within each individual on the basis of a succession of choices.

The quest for spiritual equity thus turns not so much on money as access to spiritual assets, most if which are transferred and developed privately rather than through the market. Moreover, some of the most critical spiritual assets, such as a sense of purpose, self-esteem, a sense of discipline, a vision of opportunity, and a thirst for knowledge, are transferred at very young ages. P4.

This is very much in tune with what I have been arguing on this blog. The main challenges we face are more ethical than economic now, about how people can be helped realize the good life and what kinds of behavior should be rewarded. It is surprising to see such a clear statement in this vein from an academic economist - although economic historians consistently seem more heterodox and interesting than mainstream model-builders.

We will look at more tomorrow, especially his emphasis on how ethical concerns develop over time.




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