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Creeds of plenty
Grasping for meaning in an age of abundance
I have been reading Brad DeLong’s wonderful new economic history of what he calls the “long twentieth century”. I’m on to write a full review of the book for the employer, but it’s a very thought-provoking book, and in the meantime I wanted to write about some ideas evoked by it here, in this dispatch and perhaps others to come.
A major point of emphasis of the book is that up until the latter third of the 19th century, the world had traveled very little distance, if any, from the backwardness and poverty that had prevailed over the prior 10,000 years—even in the most prosperous and industrialized parts of northwest Europe. There had been technological progress, yes, and indeed an acceleration in the pace of innovation and growth, but the rate of increase of our productive capacity remained very slow, and much of the benefit of that increase was realized in the form of faster population growth rather than increased living standards. After 1870, though, things changed, and most of the book is focused on why and how and with what effect.
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It is fascinating to consider what people living before this great acceleration believed progress would look and feel like. Brad mentions Edward Bellamy, who wrote a 19th-century novel which places its narrator in the year 2000, where he considers the wonders that have emerged over the past century and a half or so. The narrator encounters a device which allows him to listen to the music of any one of several orchestras at the touch of a button, at a time of his choosing. He is left in awe; Brad quotes him as saying:
“If we [in the 1800s] could have devised an arrangement for providing everybody with music in their homes, perfect in quality, unlimited in quantity, suited to every mood, and beginning and ceasing at will, we should have considered the limit of human felicity already attained.”
Italics mine. From the perspective of an inhabitant of the 19th century, it was difficult to conceive of anything more wonderful and desirable than unlimited access to a library of outstanding musical performances. And in one sense, this is a perfectly comprehensible sentiment. That the music we create is our most extraordinary, most perfect and sublime achievement seems a very defensible claim to me. And yet on the other, we have the very thing at which Bellamy’s narrator marveled, and yet one does not often hear people argue that we have attained the limit of human felicity. A resident of a rich country could with a relatively modest amount of work earn an income sufficient to provide the bare necessities, a good pair of headphones, and a Spotify subscription. But how many of us do? How many of us would consider someone who chose such a life to be living out a perfect existence?
There are a number of ways to think about this state of affairs. One might say that we can in fact have too much of a good thing. Or one could note that we are the victims of what is often called the hedonic treadmill; we quickly get used to new pleasures (or the abatement of old pains) and come to take them for granted, such that no matter how much progress we manage as a society we feel dissatisfied. That’s a gloomy thought, since it suggests that no matter how powerful our technology becomes, we will be left wanting more, never content.
But of course the way that we feel about our lives is about more than the material comforts around us. We seek and find meaning in other ways, and derive satisfaction from that. And yet it occurred to me, reading Brad’s book, that because we are only a few generations into an era of real plenty, we have not yet developed a system of belief—a faith or a creed—to provide us with the spiritual ballast we need to enjoy our prosperity in a fulfilling and munificent way. We had 10,000 years to develop faiths and ethe to help us navigate life at the edge of subsistence, surrounded by suffering and death. We are a long way from finding adequate replacements, suited to our new circumstances.
What should such creeds entail? They should, first, help us make sense of the world as it is and our place within it. They should provide us with a practical ethics, to help guide us in our interactions with others. And they should have the property that this practical ethics, when broadly held and followed, yields a society which is more resilient and comprehensible and cohesive than societies without such creeds. This latter point is important. To keep large societies working requires massive acts of collective cooperation, and none of us is capable of working out what we ought to be doing to facilitate this cooperation through reason alone. We thus need rules of thumb to steer us. Self-interest is one, but it seems unlikely that we could build or maintain a complex society based solely on self-interest; certainly the one we have now required more in its construction.
Is that to say that our old creeds helped us to arrive at our moment of prosperity? I think so. Joseph Henrich and co-authors argue that the societies in which industrialization and modern economic growth emerged differed in important ways from others; researchers, across many social-science studies, have found that behavioral tendencies relating to cooperation, fairness, and reasoning style (among other attributes) are systematically different in rich, Western societies than elsewhere. This has nothing to do with genes. It is, rather, a reflection of the different way in which cultures evolved in different parts of the world. The choices we make are informed by the norms we internalize as we grow up, which are in turn bolstered by the stories we tell about the world and the way we see our role within it.
And so creeds which emphasized that we should respect individual initiative, thrift, education, public-spiritedness, and so on helped to lay the groundwork for prosperity. They provided a foundation, too, for other crucial systems of belief; like the values of the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution—that we can and should seek to understand how nature works, and use that knowledge to improve our own material condition—which Joel Mokyr argues made the crucial difference in touching off economic growth. Or the idea that economically prudent behavior and commercial success are consistent with a broadly virtuous life, which Dierdre McCloskey reckons were part of the growth-friendly package of values held by the bourgeoisie of northwest Europe at industrialization’s critical moment.
But the process set in motion by the evolution of these creeds launched us into an entirely unfamiliar world, in which societies are far larger and more diverse and more technologically capable and wealthier than ever before. We need new systems of belief to guide us through this world.
We are groping our way toward creeds of plenty. The most successful effort so far may well be the laissez faire, “supply-side” neoliberalism which emerged in anglo-American economies from around the 1960s or so. It presented people with a coherent narrative about the world: the market will provide us with good material things to enjoy if we let it. It had a practical ethics: our responsibility here is to make money and spend it on things that we want. And it held that if we all, collectively, abided by these principles, then we would continue to find shelves stocked with new and improved goodies. This creed has a certain universal appeal. But many people also seem to find the sense of meaning that it provides to be inadequate—quite understandably. Efforts to graft this creed onto evangelical Christianity through the “prosperity gospel” have not much helped.
Another proto-creed is emerging in the ideas surrounding the concept of “de-growth”. There are many people who seem to feel that our big problems result from the fact that we are not living in harmony with nature; our new prosperity means that we now have the ability to provide for our basic necessities even as we work to reduce our environmental impact. This creed has the makings of a practical ethics: seek satisfaction in simple pleasures and use no more of available natural resources than you need to. And it offers its visions of the good life: in which the world returns to an edenic state, with which we live in harmony thanks to our technology and to the restraint of our appetite for consumption. It is easy to identify potential problems with such ideas, and yet it is also easy to see how this might well become one of the major faiths of the future.
Can we do better? I think that we probably have to, if we’re to make it through the challenges we face today. There is something brewing in the space of people interested in effective altruism, technological optimism, and so on: a nascent faith built on the idea that technology can help us both alleviate suffering and find meaning, which recasts the profit-motive as a temporarily necessary expedient to help us achieve our goals rather than a morally valid end in itself. But the ideas circulating in this area are riddled with contradictions, and there is a long road to travel to get toward a practical ethics and a vision of a meaningful existence that has broad appeal.
But it does seem to me that it is both inevitable that creeds of plenty emerge and desirable—although with matters of faith there is always a lot that can go wrong—and that in the future people will struggle to understand this moment of nonbelief and vulgar materialism. Yes, we, in the rich world, no longer have to worry that the threat of death by hunger or disease looms around every corner, in the way that it once did. But as Emily St. John Mandel’s Travelling Symphony rightly has it: survival is insufficient.
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