The Real Cost of Economic Progress


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**In the next few posts, I am going to spend some time unpacking what I think is a central way of thinking about life counter to the predominant mode of focus: that of Oikonomics instead of Economics. This line of thinking is heavily influenced by “Economics and Education for Human Flourishing: Wendell Berry and the Oikonomic Alternative to Neoliberalism,” by Joseph A. Henderson and David W. Hursch published in Educational Studies Vol. 50 (2014), 167-186.

In the previous post, “Economics vs Oikonomics,” I outlined the theme for this dialogue: namely, unpacking two distinct social imaginaries, that of Economics and that of Oikonomics, in order to understand how they shape the way we find identity, meaning, and purpose in life. In this post, I want to spoil the surprise and get on to the ending (tell the punch line before the  joke, if you will) by exposing the true “cost” of a social imaginary rooted in “economics”.

Before I do, here are a few definitions of economics (by social theorists, economists, and philosophers) that will set the table for this discussion and give us a common language from which to start:

  • To begin, there is the famous conceptualization by Adam Smith (author of Wealth of Nations) who said that, economics was “an inquiry into the nature and causes of the wealth of nations”
  • John Stuart Mill called it “The science which traces the laws of such of the phenomena of society as arise from the combined operations of mankind for the production of wealth, in so far as those phenomena are not modified by the pursuit of any other object.”
  • Alfred Marshall, in his book, Principles of Economics, gave this definition (which I rather like), “Economics is a study of man in the ordinary business of life. It enquires how he gets his income and how he uses it. Thus, it is on the one side, the study of wealth and on the other and more important side, a part of the study of man.”

Economics, then, (among other things) is at least a way of talking about the mechanisms of acquiring wealth and consuming goods and resources (another term we might employ would be market consumerism. However, “economics” makes the point just as well, especially since this is the term most commonly used by pundits, politicians, and radio talk show hosts).

What, then, seems to be the problem? Isn’t this part of the very fabric of our lives? Aren’t we supposed to acquire wealth (as honestly and properly as we can) and spend it on the things we need and want?

Those are the very questions we are trying to address here. As I said, I want to pull the wool back to give away the ending so that, as we progress in the particulars, there is at least a common understanding, supported by the claims of philosophy, theology, and modern empirical research, that this particular social imaginary is not the only social imaginary, nor is it the best one for discussing human flourishing.

Ok, to begin, let’s look at this notion of “economic progress”; that is, the idea that we must continue to work hard in order to accumulate more stuff (this is a rather simple way of describing it, but it is the underlying theme behind what we hear in the news when things like “economic development” or “jobs inflation” is talked about).

In his award wining essay, The Discourse on the Arts and Sciences, Jean-Jacques Rousseau stunned the world when he claimed that, rather than being a good thing, progress (particularly in the arts and sciences–what we might call culture and technology today) was a terrible thing for the human condition. That is, though mankind has progressed in ways that astonish the mind (and even more so today. I doubt Rousseau could imagine the Internet, cell phones, and rocket ships), we have not progressed morally. He claims that our progress (and this was 18th century progress) had only led to excess idleness of some and excess toil of others; gluttony for some and poverty for others; immoderate passions for some and exhaustion for others, and that all of these ills could have been avoided had we avoided the temptation towards “progress”. He famously states, “Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains.”

What, then, are the chains of economic progress?

Here are but a few empirical examples taken from Tim Kasser’s, The High Price of Materialism, Madeleine Levin’s, The Price of Privilege, and Susan Linn’s, Consuming Kids: Protecting Our Children From the Onslaught of Marketing and Advertising:

Persons who pursue economic progress (that is, have their values rooted in materialistic gain) are more likely to:

  • Have a more diminished overall quality of life
  • Have difficulty fostering deep relationships with other people
  • Experience higher levels of stress, anxiety, and depression
  • Report being unhappy more often than happy
  • Be more at risk for such self-destructive behaviors as substance abuse (drugs, alcohol, tobacco), cutting, eating disorders, and body dsymorphia
  • Experience more envy, social anxiety, and overall insecurity
  • Work long hours and amass great debt in order to convey a sense of being “well-off” at the expense of personal well-being
  • Be at greater risk for addictions
  • Report greater dissatisfaction in their marriages
  • Be more disconnected from their communities
  • Have greater disregard for the natural resources of the earth
  • Raise children whose physical, psychological, social and emotional development is stunted by the values of materialism

Here is but one example of the way “economic progress” is consuming our kids. Take a look:

I share the research with you upfront not just to show my cards, but to begin the conversation by saying what sages from just about every religious and philosophical persuasion have been saying for millennia: economic progress for its own sake is extremely dangerous both to individuals and to communities. My hope is that, by digging into this, we can see “Economics” for what it is and choose, if we are so inclined, to live out a different set of values and ideals. In the next few posts, I’ll take us out of the weeds of philosophy and research and into the real world, where the rubber meets the road.

Next Post: “Resumes vs Roots”

Further Resources:

The Price of Affluence

The Price of Materialism





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