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 choice.

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.