Aspiring as Individuals Towards a Just Economy
The market economy has, in some respects, led to wonders in human coordination. That products, the constituent parts of which may come from a variety of different countries, can be delivered to one’s doorstep within days of ordering speaks to humanity’s capacity to innovate, create, and manage higher and higher levels of complexity. Such systems, although not without serious shortcomings, merit praise, not condemnation.
At the same time, many societies are organized so as to place economic growth as the central, dominating process of human life, to the point where all other processes are subordinated to it. Organizing society to serve the needs of the economy has had significant consequences for the way we understand human nature and human relationships. Achieving a deeply just social order will thus require more than just a few cosmetic changes—as vital and essential as they may be—to the way taxes are set and who receives which transfers. It also requires a fundamental examination of the ways in which market-embedded societies have influenced our understanding of human nature and our relationships—to one another and to the market—and an effort to reconstruct those relationships in light of spiritual principle.
Consider the example of consumption. It is no secret that one of the deliberate goals of the global development effort of the 20th century was to push the developing nations of the world through a “set” of development “stages” culminating in the “age of high mass-consumption.” To sustain high levels of economic growth, great attention was given to ensuring that people turn to the market not just to satisfy needs but to fulfill wants. Influential economists, many of whom provided the intellectual support for major policy reform aimed at economic expansion, were explicit in their intentions to stimulate and expand people’s wants. The idea put forward at the time was that “wants are limited because the goods one knows about and can use are limited.” Increase people’s wants, and their consumption—and hence demand for economic goods and services—will increase. Thus, the key for societies, therefore, lay in spreading knowledge of new goods among the populace since this was “the key to the expansion of wants.”
For those concerned about a viable, sustainable future, the line of demarcation between needs and wants is a profound one, with serious implications for the economy. Satisfying the needs of an individual whose main purpose in life is to serve others in an effort to contribute to a more just society will call for a very different set of economic arrangements than those required to satisfy individuals who, influenced by sources of propaganda and advertisement, are led to discover new “needs” every day. The words of Bahá’u’lláh leave a penetrating influence:
O Son of Man! Thou dost wish for gold and I desire thy freedom from it. Thou thinkest thyself rich in its possession, and I recognize thy wealth in thy sanctity therefrom. By My life! This is My knowledge, and that is thy fancy; how can My way accord with thine?
Of course, the discussion of needs and wants necessarily comes with a number of caveats. For one, there is no universal set of needs applicable to all people at all times: Different people have different needs and indeed the same person will likely have different needs at different points in his or her life. For another, needs can also be considered in terms of their quantity and degree. One may require a suit for his or her profession. But how many suits are needed? And does one need a suit with a designer brand when a suit of similar quality and look without the label would suffice just as well? Of course, this is not to say that only legitimate needs are good and that all forms of desire are bad. It is just that without reflection on our consumption habits, we may be prone to encourage the worst tendencies of the market while foregoing opportunities to refine our higher nature. More than anything, the issue appears to be one of awareness: How conscious are we of what we consume and why? Ultimately, the House of Justice explains, “Managing one’s financial affairs in accordance with spiritual principles is an indispensable dimension of a life lived coherently. It is a matter of conscience, a way in which commitment to the betterment of the world is translated into practice.”
Human compassion and love
Evaluating the worth of a person by his or her economic status is another tendency that a society focused on acquisition promotes, and a tendency we would need to do away with in an effort to build an economy based on spiritual principle. “To view the worth of an individual,” the House of Justice clearly writes, “chiefly in terms of how much one can accumulate and how many goods one can consume relative to others is wholly alien to Bahá’í thought.” This has implications for our attitude towards the poor. “No deed of man is greater before God,” ‘Abdu’l-Bahá writes, “than helping the poor. Each one of you must have great consideration for the poor and render them assistance.” In addition to legal codes and regulations, then, those with means are called upon to be “merciful to the poor” and to contribute “from willing hearts to their needs without being forced or compelled to do so.” Achieving this level of compassion requires love. He writes, for example:
Hearts must be so cemented together, love must become so dominant that the rich shall most willingly extend assistance to the poor and take steps to establish these economic adjustments permanently. If it is accomplished in this way, it will be most praiseworthy because then it will be for the sake of God and in the pathway of His service. For example, it will be as if the rich inhabitants of a city should say, “It is neither just nor lawful that we should possess great wealth while there is abject poverty in this community,” and then willingly give their wealth to the poor, retaining only as much as will enable them to live comfortably.
Introducing such ideas into contemporary discourse may seem difficult. In trying, it is helpful to note that these ideals have received intellectual support for many years. In his Theory of Moral Sentiments, written in 1759, Adam Smith draws on these elements of our nature in an effort to offer a sweeping account of moral philosophy that underpinned much of his economic thinking. For example, he writes that “man naturally desires, not only to be loved, but to be lovely; or to be that thing which is the natural and proper object of love.” Moreover, he explains:
How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it.
These ideals are also supported by empirical evidence. One influential economic article notes, for example, that
almost all economic models assume that all people are exclusively pursuing their material self-interest and do not care about “social” goals per se. This may be true for some (maybe many) people, but it is certainly not true for everybody. By now we have substantial evidence suggesting that fairness motives affect the behavior of many people.
In recent decades, the economics of altruism have flourished, and there are many examples that show human beings to be more than the calculating, self-interested being that initial, primitive models suggest. There is evidence that demonstrates we are motivated as much by considerations of fairness and cooperation as we are by selfish ones. Being motivated by considerations of love and compassion will surely be added to the list.
As it relates to the distribution of economic resources, then, an economy based on the principles of justice and equity does not object to efforts to improve material conditions or to increase wealth and income. The objection is that such efforts have come at the expense of an expanded view of human nature that includes a spiritual dimension. Markets, this article has argued, are social constructs. The policies we choose matter. The candidates we elect matter. The goods and services we consume matter. The understanding we have of human nature and of the purpose of our existence matters. All these things have significant cumulative effects on the way that markets, and their outcomes, are structured. “Every choice a Bahá’í makes,” the House of Justice clearly explains, “leaves a trace, and the moral duty to lead a coherent life demands that one’s economic decisions be in accordance with lofty ideals.” Through moderate yet bold legislative adjustment and a spiritually awakened populace, it is possible for material and spiritual prosperity to coexist.
It is often assumed that income inequality is caused by the operation of impersonal market forces, the like of which include wages, advances in technology, increased market competition, and the rising returns of individual investments in education. While there is little doubt about the pivotal role economic forces play in generating and distributing wealth, economic rationale alone cannot explain income disparities that are everywhere occurring as a result of the gross accumulation of wealth by those at the very top of the income distribution. Fostering economic justice requires a spirit of charity, to be sure, based on an understanding of our inherent interconnectedness as a human family. But it also requires strong institutional arrangements that prevent people from over-accumulating at the top and under-accumulating at the bottom.
Originally published from Baha'i World