Valuing the Earth: The Purpose of Wealth

This is a continuation of a series I started exploring some of the themes found in the book Valuing the Earth: Economics, Ecology, Ethics.

The ends-means spectrum introduced (way back when) in the first post on this book is important to keep in mind, as it frames the conversation in the book and my mind as well. The next section of the book concerns ethics or the Ultimate end of the economic process. It is clear (to me anyway) that economics in and of itself is not a meaning-making enterprise, nor does it claim to be.

So, the question of the purpose of wealth should be answered by something that gives us a vision of the way the world should be. This has often been religions, but perhaps there are other possibilities. The main point is that economics itself is not capable of such a vision. E.F. Schumacher says,

Modern economics...considers consumption to be the sole end and purpose of all economic activity, taking the factors of production–land, labor and capital–as the means (Schumacher 177).

This is what happens when economics does not recognize that it does not possess its own telos for wealth. Wealth, consumption or economic growth are simply substituted for an authentic telos and the means are simply made an end in itself. This has had disastrous consequences.

The individual is considered to be the sole and best arbiter of what their needs are, how to prioritize them and how best to meet them. The only imperative is that they continue to consume in order to meet these needs. When our basic needs have been met, advertising and marketing enter in order create artificial needs and desires. According to consumerism, there is nothing wrong with this situation as long as individuals are allowed to continue meeting their “needs” free from interference. This thinking elevates individual desires and self-interest (or self-aggrandizement) to the level of telos. Somehow our own instincts and desires to benefit and preserve our own selves and interests will benefit everyone equally, because it will enable us to fulfill our own dreams.

This, at least, is the dream of our infinite growth consumer economy. It should seem clear (regardless of how you feel about this dream) that we have not yet arrived at such a utopian outcome. Some will decide to blame the fact that a truly free market has never been attempted. The problem is it probably never will. Regardless, we must come to grips with the fact that, while it is possible to point to improvements, the world is far from they “way it should be” according to any religious or other definition of which I’m aware.

So, we are left with a discipline, that for the most part, has misunderstood its own nature. It has confused itself with something that provides meaning and vision for the way the world should be rather than something that tries to understand and observe the way the world actually works. As far as it describes the way the world works accurately, it is a helpful discipline. When it reaches beyond its own limitations it becomes something else entirely, at least unhelpful and at worst dangerous.

So, what is the purpose of wealth? According to my understanding of the biblical and historical Christian tradition and the example Jesus set before us through his life and death, wealth and power can only be used in the service of others. The problem is that in our finite minds we sometimes believe that we are capable of serving others with our wealth and power when in fact we are serving something else, call it evil, sin, Satan or injustice.

This is the problem with the elevation of rational self-interest by modern economics. From a Christian perspective, it does not take the reality of sin and brokenness into account. From a more non-religious perspective, it does not take into account the common good and a vision for what purpose the discipline of economics is serving, toward what vision of the way the world should be it is working.

Here are some principles, or ideas, I believe the biblical narrative provides as a vision of the way things should be:

  • Equality of economic opportunity
  • Dignity of all human beings as created by God
  • Care and stewardship for the natural resources and systems that sustain life within God's creation
  • Possessions and property should be held loosely and ideally shared between those have and those who lack
  • The model for our relationships with each other and the earth is the servant leadership exemplified in Jesus' life and death

Now, with the Ultimate ends before us, we can critique how the current or any economic system does or does not move us in this direction or rely on these principles to guide it. This is not the only possible vision for the Ultimate end. Perhaps other religions would differ somewhat. Perhaps there are secular philosophies that would substitute another vision. The point is that economics does not have this kind of vision in itself. Therefore the critique of how economics orders our life together necessarily comes from some meaning-making enterprise.

So, what’s your vision and where does it come from?

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3 thoughts on “Valuing the Earth: The Purpose of Wealth

  1. jtapp

    I don’t know too many Christian economists who would disagree with your bullet points. I think many would add to #2 that along with dignity, we should respect each individual’s freedom because each individual is created in the image of God. That may not jive as well with some of your paragraphs above. But many see a biblical justification for that individual freedom.

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  2. Gary

    Overall, don’t disagree. I don’t know that I can comment on the vision question, but I do have some thoughts about economics. I won’t dispute that many see capitalism and free markets as the answer to everything. I don’t include myself in that. However, in reading about capitalism and how it is meant to work, I don’t know that equality is actually a goal or as you put “benefiting everyone equally.” Now, I can’t remember if the following is something I read or just my own conclusions from what I’ve read (probably the former). Both capitalism and democracy, seem to me, not as attempts to create utopia, but pragmatic systems designed to cope with the way the world is. We’ll never have economic equality nor purge corruption from power and politics, so we have systems that try to balance human nature out and maximize freedom (both economically and in everyday lives). The assumption is that no system will provide for perfect equality or freedom. So far, I think both systems have done well (in the long historical perspective) to maximize freedom and economic equality. This is not to say there can’t be new systems or that abuses that increased inequality haven’t happened. There might be different perspectives on this, Africa being a good example of free markets so far not delivering.

    Next, I have a question (and this is really just a curiosity). After meeting basic needs, what should humans do? I am wondering what the difference is between hobbies or interests in which I must exchange money to participate in and consumerism? Are you making a distinction between consuming for consuming’s sake and the economics of self interest?

    None of this is to say one can’t strive for the visions you laid out. For a non-religious vision, I guess it would be working within those systems to refine them and also provide for those unable to take advantage of the system. I don’t look for an ultimate end in economics, though. As you said, economics doesn’t have an end, and can’t provide meaning.

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  3. Maria Kirby

    I guess my two cents are that there is a difference between personal economics and the economics aggregate individuals. Personal economics seems to be a means of stockpiling resources for future use, especially for when a person can’t work or to ameliorate disasters. Sort of like squirrels hoarding nuts for winter. Money is much more flexible and enduring unit of exchange than last year’s crop of turnips or a dentist’s ability to pull teeth.

    I believe that Jesus teaching of hospitality and generosity is a superior method of stockpiling for the future. A kind act does not lose value over time and can never be stolen. The returns on kind acts of hospitality and generosity are so much greater if there is no expectation of return or if given to those who cannot return the favor in the foreseeable future.

    I see economic systems as being all the personal economics aggregated together. The lowest common denominator of all the individuals drives public policy. Unfortunately, generally the lowest common denominator is not our most noblest qualities.

    Biological nature is not for the most part self limiting. Generally it continues to grow/hunt/eat/reproduce until whatever resource is used up and it begins to die off in mass. If we want to avoid the general fate of nature, then at some point we have to put limit on ourselves. But it takes mature individuals to set those limits. How well a democratic society can set limits on themselves has a good deal to do with what is the lowest common denominator of maturity.

    In our freedom loving country, limits are often thought of as a bad thing. But limits drive innovation which in the long run give us more options, more freedom than we had before we set limits. One of the fruits of the spirit is self-control, but we rarely teach about that in our society of plenty. Unfortunately.

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