What is the Purpose of Society?
OUTLINE FOR A GREAT DEBATE
There is more than one prescription for society's ills.
The advice of economists and financiers is familiar: control inflation,
streamline business, cut government spending and remove restrictions on
the market's money making magic. These measures stimulate growth and increase
the tax revenue available to address our problems.
With problems expanding after several decades of following this advice, it is
understandable if we look for a second opinion.
There is another perspective. It comes from the voluntary sector. Wherever
problems arise, people notice, they study the situation and work to set
it right. Hundreds of thousands of people across Canada, and millions around
the world, respond to difficulties with all the skill and intelligence at
their command. Their motivation is not the money they can make from their
efforts, but rather the long-term well-being of their families and communities.
This spontaneous response to adversity can be viewed as the natural
immune system of society. The insights developed by this sector and the
solutions they advise often differ from those promoted by economists and
financiers. Their concern is for: the inclusion of all people; clean air,
safe water and healthy soil; respect for other living things and the celebration
of learning, love, laughter, friendship, creativity, sport, music and other
opportunities that come from being alive.
For the purpose of discussing the relative merits of these two approaches,
they can be identified as growth and sustainability. These different views
of what contributes to human well-being are in some ways complimentary.
In other ways they conflict.
Both perspectives agree that society is better off when production makes
more efficient use of raw materials and energy. They also agree that reducing
pollution is a good thing, although growth proponents are not so sure when
pollution prevention cuts into profits.
Sustainability and growth have different views of efficiency measures
that eliminate jobs. Growth is served because reduced costs enable more
money to be made. Sustainability, on the other hand, contends that people
need opportunities to participate and that employing fewer people is a loss
of efficiency. At issue here is whether the purpose of the economy is
just to make money or if it is also supposed to provide people with opportunities
to contribute to society.
Proponents of growth argue that when more
money is made, enough benefits arise to offset the dislocation of the people
involved. The topic is debatable.
When it comes to obsolescence, however, the two views are opposed. From
the growth perspective, planned obsolescence has been a key strategy in
keeping the economy growing and people working. From the sustainability
perspective, obsolescence is clearly negative. It turns valuable resources
into a garbage problem. By making things durable and easily repaired, more
value is provided with less drain on resource supplies and less pollution.
Rather than busying people wasting the resources upon which future generations
depend, it would be better to share the savings and enjoy life.
Proponents of growth say there is no money right now for anything but
paying back loans. Yet, financial markets are robust, over fifty times the
size of the entire goods and services sector. Why are they not taxed to
help maintain the society from which they draw their wealth? A fraction
of a percentage tax on financial trading would bring in more revenue than
all sales taxes. Present advisors to governments say it would
hurt the economy to tax financial markets, it is far better to cut back
on government spending.
The growth perspective presently has the complete cooperation of most
governments, but if it is mistaken, if the view held by those who voluntarily
address societies ills is more accurate, following the growth agenda could
be a terrible mistake.
Should sustainability or growth be the value upon which public policies
are based? There are many points to be argued on both sides of this question.
This article is part of a program
promoting public discussion about this
A venerable philosopher once said: "It is from the clash of
differing opinions that the light of truth shines.
" If you feel
public discussion of these matters would be interesting and productive,
please get in touch