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Myths of political-economic world view

A MYTH IS a traditional story that offers an explanation of some fact or phenomenon. Myths are neither wholly true nor wholly untrue. They may have been more true in the past than now, but people act as if they are still true, even when they no longer really believe in them. Some modem usages of the word have connotations that suggest that myths are irrelevant or wrong, but this is not necessarily so. Myths are of considerable importance to people, and for some, they may reflect ultimate personal truth. The critical need is for people to be given the opportunity to find out which myths are meaningful and which are not.

A myth is a mental model with which people try to interpret reality and respond to it. Myths have value in enabling us to organize the way we perceive facts and see ourselves and the world. Myths speak through rich symbols, helping to bring order into what may otherwise be a chaos of personal experience. Whether true or not, myths help us make sense of what is going on around us. Myths can provide a valuable doorway into the value structure of a society or culture and may give insights that are difficult to achieve by more conventional means. Some myths, like belief in fairies, are probably harmless.

Others may be dangerous if they distort the way we see the world and the ways we deal with problems. How does one tell the difference? How does one help people recognize the existence of other perspectives of reality without offending deeply held beliefs? One good way to start examining a myth is to find out what it meant to those who created it (the process of exegesis). Many social and scientific myths of the twentieth century originated in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, so this is not difficult to do. The next task is to find out what the present-day followers of the tradition of a myth mean by it (the process of hermeneutics).

The final task is to compare the myth with the reality it seeks to represent. This stage often runs into trouble with adherents because to them, a myth cannot be questioned without challenging the believer’s self. Most myths present themselves as authoritative and able to account for facts, no matter how completely at variance they may be with the real world. A myth gains its authority not by proving itself but by presenting itself. And the greater the political authority that lies behind the myth and the more often it is presented, the less likely it is to be challenged.

Such is the case with many political and scientific myths of the twentieth century. Over the past two hundred years, Western societies have cast aside many of the myths and institutions that had served them for hundreds of years. The great belief systems-the idea of a divine lawgiver; the sanctity of the family kin group, or tribe; the rituals, customs, conventions, ceremonies, and festivals that gave meaning and purpose to the smaller communities of earlier times-are mostly in ruins. But in the haste to throw off apparently outmoded burdens, people also lost the valuable side of those myths and nstitutions.

The feelings created by people’s confidence in their place in nature and in the stability of the social systems that supported them have been vandalized. Many people are left with nothing but the despair engendered by new myths that they do not understand, often because the myths have been imposed on them without explanation. 1 Throughout history, people have felt it necessary to organize life’s activities by constructing a frame of reference within which to fit them a world view that explains the hows and whys of daily existence.

Such processes have been the essential ingredient of many cultures’ responses to the world they perceived. A world view is usually so internalized, from childhood on, that it is seldom challenged. In the Western world, the belief that neutral and impersonal laws govern what can be done in society and the world is deeply embedded in technology and economics. 2 But if that sort of belief is dominant, things are taken out of the political arena that properly belong there. Such is the outcome of taking seriously many assumptions of mainstream political economics.

In reality, most of the assumptions are myths: partly true and partly false. They must therefore be treated with considerable caution. The prime myth in the context of this book claims that lower grade resources will always be available to humankind in a continuing and virtually endless sequence. Since exploitation of resources always, and without exception, requires expenditure of available and accessible energy, as I pointed out in chapter 3, this myth is critically dependent on the continuing availability of energy resources.

For that reason, I will reword it into a more specific form: Lower grade energy resources will always be available to humankind in a continuing and virtually endless sequence. Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, a trenchant critic of the myth, states: “The favorite thesis of standard and Marxist economists alike . . . is that the power of technology is without limits. We will always be able not only to find a substitute for a resource which has become scarce, but also to increase the productivity of any kind of energy and material. William Catton exposes further flaws in this “favorite thesis”: Two non-repeatable achievements had made possible four centuries of magnificent progress. Those two achievements were ( I ) the discovery of a second hemisphere, and (2) development of technology that could unearth and exploit the planet’s energy savings, its fossil fuel deposits. [Humankind’s increasingly relentless search for new sources of energy and for more costly energy technologies expresses our wish to deny that achievements like those two were uniquely resultant from bygone circumstances. 6

Part of the problem of evaluating the prime myth is that economists usually think of resources in monetary terms-in other words, as homogeneous. The inadequate information supplied by market prices for resources means that conventional (neoclassical) economics is largely incapable of according resources-especially nonhomogeneous, nonrenewable fossil energy resources-the meaning they actually possess. 7 In order to give the prime myth the attention it deserves, we need to examine some of the myths on which it depends or that are used to derive policies stemming from it.

These myths are deeply ingrained in the Western cultural tradition and are central to many areas of decision making. The reader is invited not to reject those that may be ill founded (and I strongly emphasize this point) but to treat them always as partial truths and partial perceptions of reality. They may be useful under certain limited circumstances, but they should never be used outside those narrow confines. I would also make the point that by the term “resources,” I include ecosystem services along with the conventional meaning ofextractable resources.

According to some writers, 8 Western culture, shaped by interpretations of the Bible, particularly the early books of the Old Testament, pictured humans as separate from all other creatures and dominating them. 9 Many still feel what is almost a divine imperative to “master” nature. It stems from a linear, hierarchical, authoritarian world view in which God is above, nature is below, and man is in between, set above everything but God (not forgetting that woman is set hierarchically below man). 10 The British theologian C. S.

Lewis suggested that the truth is rather more prosaic: “What we call Man’s power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument. ” 11 Recent theological studies have shown that the belief of God giving man authority over nature is not necessarily supported by the Bible. 12 The dominant themes go far beyond what is gained from literal interpretation of specific verses (e. g. , Genesis 1). In reality, there are two creation myths in Genesis: the “Yahwistic” (Genesis 2 4, in which man was created out of dust) and the “priestly” (Genesis 1:24, in which man was “given dominion,” etc. The Yahwistic version, dating from around 1000 B. C. , is closer to a holistic, “systems” view, but it was apparently superseded by the priestly version, dating from around 600 B. C. The latter clearly reflects dominance of political structures, which may have been as strong in the relationships between priests and kings in ancient Hebrew society as they are today between economists and politicians. A full analysis must also combine major themes from both the Old Testament and the New Testament. These do not support the view that humans are above nature but suggest the contrary-that they are part of it.

In Genesis 1, God declared plants and animals good independently of humans; they are therefore interdependent. 13 In a sense, God, humanity, and nature exist in a systems relationship. From a biblical viewpoint, stewardship is the primary function of humanity, whose function is to take care of God’s creation, giving special (but not exclusive) attention to itself, including future generations. Stewardship requires extending brotherhood and sisterhood not only to all existing people but also to future and past people, and to all other life forms, in appropriate degrees. 4 The Myth of Primacy of the Individual The conventional political-economic viewpoint depends on two crucial assumptions about the individual: that the individual is the best judge of his or her own interests and that over time, tastes (i. e. , preferences) do not change-or, if they do, they change as a result of better information. These are often summarized as “the independence of individual preferences. ” Although these assumptions apparently have the status of received wisdom when seen from one viewpoint, they are at best half-truths.

It may be politically expedient to declare that everyone is the best judge of his or her own interest, but few people ould not want to undo many of their past mistakes. The fact that many apparently normal people subject themselves voluntarily to various forms of psychoanalysis, or indulge in the search for truth through religion, or follow the forecasts of astrologers, means that in respect to the larger questions that govern their lives, they are far from certain where their true interests lie. 5 The modem liberal view of the place of the individual in the marketplace expressed by such philosophers as Friedrich von Hayek, is interesting in this context. As described by Bruce Jesson, their view is that ”true individualism . . . is a social individualism. Itrequires a society with a stable family structure, voluntary community associations, and conformity to tradition and convention . . . true individualism requires a rigid moral code and a sense of social responsibility. It bears little resemblance to the acquisitive,self-indulgent and amoral spirit of modem individualism . . (which) is deficient in its lack of ethics. ” 16 This model reflects cultural factors coming from groups rather than individuals. By breaking down group behavior into “socially responsible” individual behavior, one may pave the way for authoritarian controls on group action, nominally to increase individual freedom. Even though this may be done in the name of freedom, in reality it reduces the power of those with whom individuals are associated and on whom they may depend. Trade unions, under threat in many countries are an example.

The assumption that the individual is in some sense supreme in the marketplace axiomatically leads to the conclusion that reliance on individual self-interest is the only requirement of the economic (and indeed the political) system. 17 But a free market assumes that people have equal access to information about what is taking place and that they are all ufficiently self-reliant to exist without buying or selling. This reflects a utopian situation, found only in some small communities (in which group cohesion is a central element of community structure).

It has long been known by anthropologists, sociologists, and psychologists that in most societies, group behavior is markedly different from that of individuals. Long-term goals of families and communities take into account factors that seldom enter into the decision making of isolated individuals, and this is nowhere more important than in the context of relationships with the environment. 18 From the systems perspective, the view of economist Lester Thurow is helpful “Societies are not merely statistical aggregations of individuals engaged in voluntary exchange but something much more subtle and complicated.

A group or a community cannot be understood if the unit of analysis is the individual taken by himself. A society is clearly something greater than the sum of its parts despite what the price-auction model would maintain. ” 19 Conventional economics is mainly built on simplistic and outmoded concepts drawn from nineteenth-century behavioralpsychology. When economists talk about “economic man”-Homo oeconomicus-they make assumptions about rational behavior, human needs, goals, and values that have been largely demolished by workers in the social sciences. 0 The demolition occurred mainly in sociology and adult education, by empirical testing (using the Popperian criterion of falsifiability) 21 and by use of more modem ideas of behavior, such as humanistic psychology 22 and the human potential movements. 23 The idea that the individual is the central (and sole) unit of decision making in society is rejected by many cultures. Indeed, the idea is in many respects deeply offensive, and it goes against centuries of their history.

For settlers of (usually) European cultures to impose that ideology on people is yet another example of the long history of insensitivity and brutality that has characterized colonization. The idea also must be recognized as relatively new in human history, gaining its main strength from political theories of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Britain and Europe. To many Europeans, the more cooperative social structures of he past may now be too far distant to be clearly remembered, but such is not the case in most other cultures.

The dominance of European-based cultures enabled the ideology of individualism to be spread far and wide, but the historical fact of its acceptance does not prove it is “right”; the reality is that its supporting political, economic, and military structures were more powerful than The phenomenal successes of advertising, the vast amounts of money spent on it, and the involvement of psychologists supply evidence that up to a point, it is quite possible (and certainly very lucrative) to change people’s preferences. The methods used owe more to psychological manipulation than to any inherent law of human nature in that planning is extended to the consumer to ensure that he or she will “want” what is produced. According to Karl Popper, the rationality principle means that “having constructed our model, our situation, we assume no more than that the actors act within the terms of the model, or that they ‘work out’ what was implicit in the situation. ” Popper makes it clear that the rationality principle “has little or nothing to do with the empirical or psychological assertion that [people] always, or in the main, or in most cases, act rationally. 5 In other words, the rationality principle applies to the a priori domain of development of models. It has nothing to do with the empirical domain of observed human behavior. Popper goes on: “Rationality as a personal attitude is the attitude of readiness to correct one’s beliefs. ” In its intellectually most highly developed form it is the readiness to discuss one’s beliefs critically, and to correct them in the light of critical discussions with other people. 26 I am a rationalist. By a rationalist I mean a [person] who wishes to understand the world, and to learn by arguing with others.

Note that I do not say a rationalist holds the mistaken theory that [people] are wholly or mainly rational. 27 The difference between the two meanings is vitally important, but they are commonly confused. In the general sense, rationality is an a priori concept, but when the word is applied carelessly to the empirical world, the result is the expectation of rational behavior (i. e. , actions performed according to a model of behavior) rather than acknowledgment of the richly human, creative, intellectual behavior of a rational person, who takes a critical attitude to his or her beliefs.

From careful consideration of the emphasized sentence in the latter quotation from Popper, I am led inescapably to the conclusion that a rationalist should never believe in rational behavior! To do so is to accept a model as a standard for behavior rather than to observe critically the empirical reality of actual behavior. The two meanings are inherently in conflict, and Popper exposes the point very effectively: a belief in rational behavior is in itself irrational! At the empirical level, the underlying assumptions of rational behavior are largely untested and probably untestable.

Despite this, many economics textbooks still promote the model of rational Homo oeconomicus. That many economists recognize its inadequacies but continue to teach (and preach) the concepts gives me cause for concern about the scientific basis of political economic theories. (The economist Mark Blaug suggests that some economists play tennis with the net down! ) 28 The imposition (e. g. , through fiscal policies) of the requirement that people act in conformity with a model of behavior in order to gain access to some privileges of citizenship (employment, education, health care, welfare, etc. s inherently authoritarian and violent. It induces-and often forces- people into individualistic behavior against their natural instincts. Nor does the rational behavior model give adequate attention to changes in value over time, that is, to intergenerational equity. Deeply human ideas, such as leaving resources for one’s grandchildren or planning allocation by need rather than greed, have no clear place in its calculus; that sort of behavior is labeled as irrational. (Proponents of economic rationality commonly apply this label to those who disagree with them, especially to those who value the environment highly.

In this context, it is worth noting that in law, there is the concept of the reasonable person, who (in contrast to the rational person) is: “a person who is not only protective of his/her own rights, but also has a fair regard for the welfare of others. ” 29 The reasonable person is concerned with justice and fairness with equity rather than efficiency. Justice and fairness are absent in much of conventional economics, yet they are central to most people’s ideas about how society should be run.

Humanistic conomics is all about replacing the model of the rational person with that of the reasonable person. It is a central belief of those of the mainstream market liberal political-economic viewpoint that freedom of the individual is the most important characteristic of a society. For these people, freedom is entirely an economic construct. Freedom exists in the unfettered market and ceases to exist if market processes are hedged about by regulation. 33 Freedom thus has a meaning akin to choice, the availability of alternatives in a marketplace.

For most people in society, freedom has entirely different meanings, few of them capable of codification. Freedom from hunger and want? Freedom of speech and of association? Freedom from arbitrary constraints? Freedom to be creative and artistic? These are not the same as freedom of choice. Free-marketers hold to a negative freedom. “Freedom from…. ” What is important is freedom from restrictions that prevent them from getting on with whatever they want to do (mainly the accumulation of wealth). Positive freedom, on the other hand, is the more creative “freedom to . . . such as the freedom to live within a context that encourages the pursuit of things spiritual and creative. The assiduous promotion of ideas of negative freedom, especially in the market liberal context beloved of Treasury officials and business roundtables, is yet another step in the attempt to mold Homo sapiens into Homo oeconomicus-“the human as consumer”-the manipulated market cipher who will always behave as markets require. “Freedom” in this con. text has many characteristics of a myth. It also involves the hijacking of a word with an old and honorable meaning into a new and dishonorable service.

Adam Smith’s doctrine of the invisible hand that guides each individual who acts in his or her self interest to promote the interests of the society in which he or she lives is strongly supported by many people today. 49 Followers of the doctrine forget, however, that the society within which Smith developed his theories was very different from today’s. In Smith’s time, there were strong social and community constraints on individual behavior, derived from shared morals, religion, custom, and education. 50 These are not present to the same extent today, and indeed there are strong forces opposing them.

In Smith’s time, however, these social mores were so pervasive and so obvious that he would have felt it unnecessary to include them in his argument. 51 Two hundred years ago, for example, there was no question but that God was an all-powerful Being with the ability to affect the lives of each and every individual. It was a society in which self-interest included the responsibility before God to answer for life’s actions and transgressions on the Day of Judgment. To change Smith’s argument into a license for limitless self-gratification distorts his writings beyond recognition.

The invisible hand must be acknowledged as a partial truth-in other words, a myth. Some form of invisible-hand model is probably valid to describe some of what happens in a village marketplace of the type Smith described. But the belief that the sum total of market actions, each derived from individual self-interest (in practice massively influenced by advertising and distorted by externalities), in some way adds up to a guarantee of the best interests of society as a whole stretches the imagination to the breaking point.

Group identity, collective responsibility, and respect for common property are also known to be critically important cultural components of any stable society. Important areas of human social activity (concern about the distant future; respect for land, resources, and environment; spirituality; etc. ) have little to do with independent individual preferences. 52 Markets must always be held accountable to the greater social interest, something that may be forgotten by those caught up in the excitement of economic reform. 53 The greater environmental interest is no less important.

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