Opinions on Debatable Issues # 48
Many debates regarding the optimal type of economic system are centered on a specific theory or ideology, such as Capitalism or Communism. However, those discussions sometimes put more emphasis on the theoretical benefits or harms rather than the practical goals to achieve or problems to address. I believe an optimal economic system that will sustain a just society has a fixed goal of cultivating compassion and eliminating social injustices and suffering which is a flexible approach toward economic policies that is not constrained by a certain ideology. As Pierre Elliot Trudeau, a Canadian politician once said, “On the Never-ending road to perfect justice we will, in other words, succeed in creating the most humane and compassionate society possible.” A just society is inseparable from a moral population, it should be ingrained in our collective moral compass that entitlement to luxury goods or excessive wealth only appears when the basic needs and essentials of lives are ensured for all and every person. An economic system that serves a just society, therefore, must prioritize fostering humanity and compassion for both other human beings and the environment. For an economic system to successfully accomplish this goal, it must actively alleviate wealth disparity, prevent exacerbation of extreme poverty, and implement informed and effective development policies and designs with accountability and transparency.
When an economic system focuses solely on increasing its overall wealth and value of exportation, it sacrifices equality and universal human integrity, which is the farthest thing from justice. Therefore, an optimal economic system must be built on a humanistic fundamental mindset that detests wealth disparity and exploitation. Karl Marx and Engels, fathers of Communism, pointed out the problem with self-interest and profit-driven economy, as exemplified by capitalism: “[capitalism] has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment” (458). The extreme emphasis on making money for oneself and ignoring the impact of one’s economic actions on others have led to a disaster that weakens all other types of social ties that are the foundations of a society that values justice. “Ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism” all vanished under the sweeping encroachment of “egotistical calculation” (458). Before capitalism, religious involvement, moral values of chivalry, and compassion for others, though admittedly not flawless, motivated people to look out for the needs of others. Either following religious doctrines to take care of the most vulnerable or desiring deep human connection in society, people used to devote more attention to helping those around them. However, when numbers of monetary growth are hyped up to represent a country’s strength and income and wealth are touted to portray an individual’s success, this type of economic system indoctrinate radical individualism and materialism to dictate an individual’s actions. How can one expect people to act justly when they lack empathy and respect for the rights of others? The community ties should not be severed by the thirst for self-interest, and the solution is to redefine what “success” means for an economic system. A small step can be taken is to use Human Development Index (HDI) and Inequality-Adjusted Human Development Index (IDHI) to evaluate a country’s economic strength. Whereas GDP narrowly measures the total value of products produced in a country per year, HDI relatively comprehensively examines life expectancy, quality of life, and education. The latter takes into account not just the money, but the actual implications of money on people’s daily lives and intellectual development. Even better, the economy should prioritize improving its IHDI, which also accounts for inequality in a country. That means not only do different aspects of lives being evaluated but the disparity between regions and populations is addressed. More reforms of values like this that aim to shift targets that value the development of humans rather than the accumulation of wealth are necessary to create the practical economic system that is most compatible with a just society.
In particular, those changes are driven by certain goals, which are well-summarized by the UN in its 17 Sustainable Development Goals that were established in 2015 and envisioned to accomplish in 2030 (UN). Many of those issues to be addressed are inseparable from the economy in developed countries. Among the 17, poverty most imperatively demands intervention and solution, which must address the aforementioned misled economic values and economic design failures. Poverty requires the effort of those in the upper socioeconomic class to address it because it is often a systematic disadvantage of some that are controlled by those on top of the economic hierarchy. The problem with this situation is the lack of empathy and sense of urgency that are necessary to incentivize actions. Most high-income people live a comfortable life and rarely reflect on the privileges they enjoy compared to those who struggle to have their needs met. This is contributed by two factors. 1) Lack of knowledge and experiences that are further contaminated by intentional misinformation. 2) Physical segregation that makes it impossible to witness poverty in its most ugly and hell-life form. The former is exemplified by the city of Camden in the Savage Inequality. The schools in the poorer regions lacked funding, equipment, facilities, and teacher resources. However, these most urgent demands are ignored while unreasonable requirements of test scores are imposed on them (141, 143). The disconnection between the state that mandates high scores and the local community shows that wealth disparity and injustice intensify when people in power and with most wealth do not understand the struggles of those at the bottom. The state likely made arbitrary policies without devoting energy to surveying those neighborhoods, so the economic advisers and lawmakers lacked the knowledge to make informed decisions. To ameliorate this gap of knowledge can effectively diminish the first cause of perennial poverty. The second issue of physical segregation comes down to urban planning and design failure, which is often ignored by politicians and economists who narrowly examine income, inflation, productivity, and sometimes living costs. Many lower-income people who work in the primary or secondary sectors of the economy need low-cost and convenient transportation and a low-cost but safe neighborhood to live in to live a sustainable life. This criterion that sounds simple is often unmet. Urban sprawls, which is a rapid growth of the city and its metropolitan areas to accommodate the influx of workers, tend to create traffic congestion, pollution, overcrowding, and environmental damage (Rubenstein). More importantly, it causes great and quick spikes in housing prices that drive more low-income families further away from the city, thus further away from their jobs and essential services. They are forced to move into brownfields, where houses are cheaper, but people face issues of legal disputes, high travel costs, and bad access to services. This disruption often causes job loss, sudden increases in expenditure, and a lack of nutritious food that led to long-term health concerns, which all contribute to the perpetuation of poverty. More importantly, this cause concentration of poorer community and clusters of higher-income communities. Though not intentional or legally permitted, segregation based on wealth (and oftentimes overlapping with ethnic/racial ones) occurs. The solution, as Raworth points out in her proposal of a new Doughnut economic model, is “going beyond redistributing income to exploring ways of redistributing wealth, particularly the wealth that lies in controlling land, enterprise, technology, knowledge and the power to create money” (23). Merely leveling income disparity does not magically solve issues created by over- and disproportional development. The optimal economy must ensure that people with lower income are protected of their rights to housing ownership and rental, which can take place through eliminating gentrification that does not provide complementary development that adds affordable housing. The availability of enterprises that revitalize a community that is not as attractive must be ensured. Also, tactics like blockbusting must be closely monitored and promptly addressed by the local community to give power to the people that are often exploited. To alleviate poverty and wealth disparity, which are the largest obstacle to a just society, the economy must implement informed, and effective designs for developments, especially in urban areas, to accommodate the needs of all.
Some critics will likely argue that a just society is not a merciful and forgiving society that tolerates lazy people and substance abusers. I agree with this statement if dispositional factors (personality defects) are the primary culprit of poverty. The reality is that, as USCCB points out in their evaluation of the current economic systems, many cannot find a sustainable job due to economic forces other than their desire to work (Chap 1, p.4). The willingness for one to seek a job is only one of the many factors that result in one’s employment status. Though some truly refused to put in the effort and make a living morally and legally, more are confined by the circumstantial disadvantages detailly explored by Galbraith in his critique of poverty in the US in the 20th century, “Position of Poverty”. He defines the type of financial challenges caused by external factors as insular poverty, in which all people, regardless of individual differences, are “frustrated by some factor common to their environment” (503). Those factors include job availability, skills demanded, market stability, the purchasing power of the surrounding community, competitions, and so on. Often, those conditions are being manipulated to disproportionally put the already poor and vulnerable at disadvantage. So, it is clear that systematic flaws are present, and blaming the “victims” for the problems they face is unreasonable.
Some might propose that the masses lack the necessary education and skills to make informed decisions, so a group of elites must implement a planned economy that guides the masses in the process of reforming the economy. The problem with this approach is salient. Whenever a small group of individuals is left unchecked of their power over the others, abuse of power, corruption, and injustices spring up. An example is the Khmer Rouge‘s attempt to create a socialist country in The Killing Fields. Believing themselves have the legitimacy to bring equality to every Cambodian, they killed any educated individuals, brainwashed kids, and eliminated any unionization, family relationships, and previous networks to ensure that no dissents can threaten this revolutionary transformation. Yet, as Dith Pran observes, those actions when stripped of their idealistic illusion, are mere atrocities that violate the most original cause the Khmer Rouge vowed to achieve. People “must be like the ox and have no thought, except for the Party” (The Killing Field). Free will is the biggest enemy to uniform thoughts and actions, so allowing a group of people to dictate all behaviors of the masses usually leads to severe restrictions on civil liberties to consolidate the power of the elites. The massive decimation of Cambodians, and the cultivation of children into killing machines all attest to the cruel consequence of an unchecked economic system. In general, economic recessions, deaths and suffering, and more importantly violation of human integrity are the likely results.
The goal of achieving equality is to make everybody lives a happier life and eradicate injustice, but when violence is employed to cultivate fear, there is no more difference between those reformers and the previously oppressive capitalist regime. Therefore, in the process of renovating the economic system to make a more just society that values equality and cares for the poor, unchecked power concentration and lack of accountability and transparency must be adamantly guarded against.
- Friedman, Milton and Rose. “Created Equal.” A World of Ideas. Ed. Lee A. Jacobus. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2006. Print.
- Galbraith, John Kenneth. “The Position of Poverty.” A World of Ideas. Ed. Lee A. Jacobus. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2006. Print.
- Marx, Karl. “The Communist Manifesto.” A World of Ideas. Ed. Lee A. Jacobus. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2006. Print.
- Raworth, Kate. Doughnut Economics: 7 Ways to Think Like a 21st Century Economist. White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing. 2017.
- Rubenstein, J. M. “The Cultural Landscape: An Introduction to Human Geography”. Pearson Education. 13th Edition, Kindle Edition.
- The Killing Fields. Dir. Roland Joffe. Perf. Sam Waterston, Haing S. Ngor, John Malkovich, Julian Sands, Craig T. Nelson. 1984. DVD. Warner Home Video, 2001.
- Trudeau R.E. “The Essential Trudeau.” McClelland & Stewart; First Edition first Printing. Sep. 12, 1998, pp.20.
- UN. “The 17 Goals.” United Nations. 2015. https://sdgs.un.org/goals