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Why Must We Earn?

April 6, 2011

A while back I did a political compass test and ended up in the lower left quadrant, which would make me something like a socialist anarchist. This result would have annoyed me just a few years ago, which reflects how I’ve shifted in these matters.

I used to be of the opinion that you have to earn what you get in life. That people who don’t work hard enough just have themselves to blame. I never really thought about why I held these views or where they came from. It just struck me as fair somehow, that effort would and should be rewarded with a bigger slice of the cake.

And therein lies the essence of the matter; the image of a cake being divided amongst the citizens implies that there is only one cake and that the cake is of a finite and surprisingly small size. With such a starting point, it’s easy to see why it would be a logical thing to do to allocated the largest rewards to those who work the hardest. This in turn implies that how hard one works is directly proportional to one’s benefit to society.

It seems to make almost intuitively obvious sense; if you work full-time, you should have twice the pay as someone working half-time.

And it is sensible in a system built on scarcity. Without scarcity, economics would not even exist. If we have a scarcity of resources – what with living on a finite planet – it is natural for a species to premier those individuals who refine the resources most efficiently for the benefit of the group. If you contribute to the group, your status will rise.

The flip side is of course greed.

It’s easy to see why scarcity is so integral to economics. Just imagine if there were an infinite amount of money. No price would be too high, since you would always be able to pay it, which would mean that all prices are essentially the same. You wouldn’t care if a car cost €1 or €1 000 000; if you had infinite money you could still buy it.

Scarcity is a reality. We do not have infinite resources on Earth, and colonisation of other planets is still extremely impractical – ironically enough for the same reason it would be useful.

However, I do believe that most of what hinders progress the most is scarcity-driven economics. Because I believe there are degrees of scarcity; the shortage of clean water and food is quite different from a shortage of new cars, for example.

I like reading about scientific breakthroughs or at least technological improvements, but I’m sadden by the fact that many things technologically feasible today are impossible due to budgetary contrains. Every new invention has to go through a stage where it is so expensive that only the rich can afford it. Progress is always slow at first. So much time lost!

Even as a kid I thought about fully automated farms to feed everyone. To me it seemed and seems like we could easily feed everyone – at least here in the west, where the distribution network for food is well-developed.

It’s a bit like roads and railways. These are often built if not completely by then with considerable financial support of governments. Building and maintaining roads would not be an economically sound strategy for a private corporation. For a nation it is, although not directly. If roads and railways are government-controlled it means that you as a private person or corporation don’t have to worry about building or maintaining the infrastructure; you can fully concentrate on getting wares where they need to go.

My guess is that not many people would argue against such projects. Other examples would be water and sewage connections to houses, public health care and free education. To me it seems strange that we wouldn’t be able to up the ante a bit and provide free food, clothing and housing for everyone. It would not be anything lavish but merely to ensure a basic standard of living.

So why don’t we? Well, farmers would of course go bankrupt if the government started competing with them. Grocery stores would not be happy either, although if such a system were to be implemented, they would probably be paid by the state, being an already laid infrastructure and all.

The problem is as always that we’ve built a system that expects us to treat everything as a finite resource. And while that is technically completely true, we could still benefit more from pooling our assets in certain areas. If not for the sake of common decency, then a selfish argument could be made within the current framework; if no one on Earth succumbs to starvation or exposure it would mean many more geniuses around, especially if coupled with free education. And these geniuses might invent something of benefit to all, even our selfish asses.

I don’t think the goal should be to make as much money as possible but to make money obsolete.

Would that even be possible? Not anytime soon, that’s for sure. But I still think we should at least try.

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