Figured you were an atheist did you? Chances are you participate in a religion without even knowing it-and we’re not talking about the benign, church picnic kind of religion. There’s another, more insidious kind of worship and blind faith which presents a far greater threat to society than any fundamentalist with an unhealthy fascination in aviation could ever pose. It’s called economics.
Economics calls itself a science because somewhere along the line a lot of math got tossed in, but just like any discipline it is founded on certain fundamental assumptions… Fundamentally wrong fundamental assumptions. Let’s look at a few:
The first is rational self-interest-the idea that you’d have to be an idiot not to try and get the highest gain for the least effort, even if it means withholding medicine from people who can’t pay, or dumping toxic waste into a river system because it’s cheaper than disposing of it properly.
As a theory of human choice, rational self-interest just doesn’t fly. For one thing, it’s only a few of us who can be entirely selfish and get away with it-if we all acted like Enron execs, we’d all kill each other. Altruism has huge survival value in a social animal.
For another thing, people rarely comprehend the full benefits and costs of their actions. Most of the time we just have to fudge it and hope for the best. The only exception is in an artificial system, like the market, where profits and costs are easily calculated. Economic rationality is circular-the market is based on rational self-interest, but rational self-interest only works in a market system.
Another basic, and stupid, assumption of economics is scarcity-the idea that there’s never enough to go around (demand exceeds supply) because we live in a finite ecosystem, because people always want more than they can have, and because population supposedly always grows exponentially while resources do not.
For one thing, for a science that believes in scarcity, there sure are a lot of believers who carry on like there’s no limit on how much wood, oil, fish, etc. that can be squeezed from the earth, and no shortage of places to dump the waste products.
Even if you overlook this, scarcity still breaks down. It’s true that resources are finite (greed and ignorance notwithstanding), but we’re people, not rabbits. We should be able to avoid overpopulation without having to rely on starvation to take care of it for us. That’s what education and contraception are for. As for wanting more than we need-we live in a very unhappy culture, but our unhappiness is not because most of us are starving or homeless. It’s no coincidence that depression, anxiety, stress, and suicide are all on the rise in an age where advertising and pop-culture constantly tell us that who we are and what we have are never good enough.
Luckily for us, democracy emerged at roughly the same time as economics, preventing the “dismal science” from being taken to its farthest logical (and most dismal) outcome-feudalism run by merchants. But our lives are still pretty much organized according to the idea that the best possible society is one of endless competition-that to survive you must be greedy.
And it’s not just the blind faith in bad psychology-our economic actions resemble religious forms. We worship money. Governments and corporations make important policy decisions based on the divinations of the economic high-priesthood, who in turn struggle to discern the will of the Market.
We don’t build cathedrals anymore. Our greatest architectural monuments are shopping malls. Next time you’re at Yorkdale or the Eaton’s centre, take a look at the space. Notice how the more expensive retailers are always located near the largest spaces and the brightest light sources because money is our spiritual currency. Take a close look at the ritual a person performs when they step up to a bank-machine or wait for absolution at the tellers. If you’d never seen a bank before, you might think it was a kind of shrine.
Okay, so maybe you’re not, ahem, buying all this; but it’s something to think about the next time you line up at the bank or find yourself shopping to feel better.
Religion or not, the foundations of economics are still philosophically bankrupt, and we really ought to stop living according to them. A truly rational person considers the effects of his or her actions, and knows that the health of the community, the land, and oneself are inextricably linked. A truly rational person knows that if you take care of your neighbors, they will take care of you; and that if you want more than you need and can reasonably have, then you will never be happy.