Saturday, December 06, 2008

Discussion of ethics, capitalism, the environment, and what I should do with my life

I have been reading The Business by Iain Banks. It is an engaging read, despite the treacle-slow plot, and has plenty of the kind of feats of imagination that I like about Banks’ writing.

The main protagonist is a mid-to-high-level manager in “the business” – a generation-spanning organisation that supposedly bought the Roman Empire (but only for 66 days), owns several sets of crown jewels, and is as ubiquitous as it is unnoticed.

The internal set-up of the business is explored in some detail; it is vehemently rationalist, secular, meritocratic, and organised to avoid corruption, nepotism, and dynasty-building as these things are seen to get in the way of effective money-making.

As ever Banks’ imagination and prose add a great deal to the story, and his politics shines through as clearly as usual. Several pages are given over to debates about inequality, opportunity, capitalism, and the pros and cons of free markets and the state.

I am currently at 312/392 pages. I don’t know if there will be a twist at the end or not, but the book has already given me food for thought on a subject that has been worrying me for some time now.

I am currently 19 years old and in the very fortunate position of being able to choose how, where, and in what manner I wish to live my life. This is not a choice most people are offered. As such, I have been vacillating over the appropriate direction to take. Do I want to dedicate my life to the service of some greater good, or do I want to pursue my own aims and personal ambitions?

Reading A.C. Grayling’s The Choice of Hercules: Pleasure, Duty, and the Good Life in the 21st Century has helped a little. In the book Grayling argues that the idea that we have to choose whether to devote our lives to vice or virtue is a false one. At the same time H.J. Blackham’s Humanism suggests that I have a responsibility to myself, and a responsibility to everyone else by virtue of our common experience of humanity. Balancing the two is addressed by Grayling quite well in his book.

In any case the real cause of my concern over what path to take stems from the ideas explored in The Business. Is acquisitiveness good? Is greed good? Is it better to seek to grow and expand your wealth or persue other interests entirely?

Quite often this argument is subsumed by other arguments about capitalism vs. socialism; of free markets vs. state control; traditional morality vs. human nature; and arguments over the best way to raise people out of poverty and end tyranny and bloodshed.

These kind of political, economic and social arguments devolve to deciding whether or not our current system of liberal democratic capitalism (as typified by the USA, Japan, and the EU) is the best resource/scarcity-allocating system.

The definition of “best” is open for debate as well. Anyone asking for my beliefs on what is best should read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, then read up on utilitarian philosophy and the golden rule. For the purposes of the rest of this essay I will assume “best” means that all resources are allocated in a manner which leads to an ending of human poverty ASAP, an ending to war, and provision for ensuring sustainable use of finite resources (read: avoiding anthropogenic climate change, preserving and enhancing biodiversity, repairing some of the damage we have already done to the environment and ensuring that in the long run human activity has a neutral effect on the environment).

This is a tall order for any prospective resource-allocation system, but I am confident it can be accomplished. The best book I’ve read on the subject of ensuring continuing and growing prosperity for all whilst maintaining the environment is The Meaning of the 21st Century: A Vital Blueprint for Ensuring Our Future by James Martin. In the book Martin argues for something called “eco-affluence.” Martin believes that with a combination of freer markets, more education (especially for women), and advanced technologies (most notably extensive use of genetic engineering, nuclear power, and hydroponics) we will be able to simultaneously solve our environmental and humanitarian problems. He makes an excellent case for the fact that they are one and the same problem, and that attempting to solve one whilst disregarding the other will end up exacerbating both.

From an objective perspective it is clear that if a better resource/scarcity-allocating system than liberal democratic capitalism ever emerged then we should immediately adopt it. Some might point to China’s model of state capitalism as an alternative solution, but they miss the point that what matters is quality of life. Most evidence suggests dictatorships are simply institutionally incapable of behaving in a benign manner.

Can you do good simply by aiming to become rich? You create jobs, you increase public tax revenues and hence the amount of money spent on welfare, hospitals, schools, etc. If you do it properly you create an environmentally sustainable business that provides people with a good service. You will probably have a lot of fun once you acquire wealth and then you can give it all away before you die.

There are a couple of ways of looking at problems in the world. One argument would be to say that the problem is corporatism. Whenever the needs and desires of an abstract collective are put above the needs and desires of individuals you get problems. An example that springs to mind is that of environmentalism. Environmentalists have an unfortunate habit of treating people as “the problem” rather than the only reason it is worth solving the problem.

In The Business “the Business” is a mechanism for allowing the flourishing of individuals – or is it a controlling corporate regime?

John Marnard Keynes, the economist whose theories of fiscal stimulus are currently being implemented by our politicians saw capitalism as a means to an end, a multi-generational project for creating wealth, growth, and technological innovation. His concept of capitalism was that it is a necessary evil; a mechanism for creating a greater good.
In his essay The Economic Possibilities of Our Grandchildren Keynes writes that:

The strenuous purposeful money-makers may carry all of us along with them into the lap of economic abundance. But it will be those peoples, who can keep alive, and cultivate into a fuller perfection, the art of life itself and do not sell themselves for the means of life, who will be able to enjoy the abundance when it comes.
It could be said that Keynes is too utopian – and that he doesn’t realise that humanity is inherently acquisitive and irrational. Maybe markets emerge naturally in all human societies?

To return to Iain Banks – A Few Notes on the Culture is well worth reading on the subject of what (I hope) a post-scarcity civilisation looks like.

And also (via Ken MacLeod) this libertarian commentary on the idea of "success" from Brian Micklethwait.

And finally, because this is a blog after all, what about me? What should I do? Start a business? Go study bioinformatics? Go study economics? Go study systems engineering? Write novels?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am at the age of getting ready to retire so I am looking back on your debate with yourself from a rear view mirror. The only advice I can give you is to find something to do with your life that makes you look forward to getting up to do it every day, whether that is writing a book, serving in a soup kitchen or making millions. I've done it both ways - dreading every day or eager for every day. Find what makes you happy and the rest will take care of itself. Good luck.


Go Jimmie Johnson!