The Case for a Utopian Economy
The Tragedy of Childhood Starvation and Malnourishment
Cast an eye about you and it’s hard to not notice a great many problems besetting the people of this planet, problems that persistently defy all attempts at resolution either by social institutions designed specifically to deal with them or by even the most altruistic and dedicated individuals. There are so many problems in fact, that to consider them as a whole tends to produce feelings of despair and a fatalistic acceptance of the status quo. It just may be however, that the solution of one problem will lead to the solution of others that stem from the same root cause. Consider for example, the problem of starvation, particularly of the world’s children, an especially senseless tragedy in light of this planet’s tremendous natural fertility.
On any given day thousands of unwanted and neglected children roam the streets of many of our largest cities. Hordes of these unfortunate waifs pour over the cities’ garbage dumps in search of any discarded items that might be resold in order to buy enough food to survive another day. Many of them won’t wake up the next morning, not because there was no food available, but because they didn’t have enough money to buy a loaf of bread. The root cause of this tragedy is therefore not scarcity, but poverty. The solution is accordingly not to give each child a loaf of bread, but rather to make sure that every starving child can afford to buy the bread that’s already there.
Logically, this can only be accomplished in one of two ways; either by providing each child with enough money each day to buy a loaf of bread from the local bakery, or by reducing the price of a loaf of bread to the point where every child can afford one – which is to say by making bread free. However, there are a number of problems with the first of these two options.
Obviously, the money would either have to be newly created or it would have to come out of the money already in circulation. The problem with printing new money is that the value of a dollar (or a peso, or a euro) isn’t fixed, but like any commodity it varies according to the law of supply and demand. Since the demand is constant, the greater the supply the lower the value of each dollar becomes. If bread, for example, cost a dollar a loaf, the moment enough money was printed to give each of the world’s hungry children a dollar a day, every day, the price of a loaf of bread would increase to say, two dollars. So, since the money couldn’t be raised by simply printing it, the currency already existing would have to somehow be redistributed, either through taxation or voluntarily donations.
Unlike the problem with printing new currency, which is intrinsic to the nature of money itself and therefore insurmountable, redistributing the wealth is, logically speaking, a possible solution. Indeed, many international aid organizations, both private and governmental, actively solicit funds from the public every day, and have been doing so for years. Yet children continue to starve. This is hardly surprising considering, not only the number of other organizations dedicated to solving other problems that are competing for the people’s money, but the sheer number of children dying either from outright starvation or from diseases directly attributable to malnourishment and thus the incredible amount of money involved.
So, since the children cannot be given the money needed to buy their bread, neither by printing new currency nor by redistributing the money already in use, the only possible solution remaining is to reduce the price of the children’s daily bread to zero. Of course, in order for bread to be free for the children, it must be free for everyone; otherwise the children would sell their loaf of bread to an adult and then return to the bakery for a second, third or even fourth loaf. But if bread is free then, since the farmer and the baker need shoes for their families, shoes would have to be free for bakers and farmers, and to avoid a black market in shoes, free for everybody else as well. The cobblers, of course, need clothes and the tailor needs a sewing machine, so just as each domino in a line knocks over its neighbor once bread is free then everything must be free.
Now, reducing the price of everything to zero is neither socialism nor communism. Nor is it a return to the barter system. In a socialist system the people wouldn’t have to pay for their bread directly because the baker would be paid a standardized salary by the government with money raised through taxation, which is to say the baker would be paid by the society as a whole – well-fed and under-fed alike. But the baker doesn’t work for free. In a communist system, the government would own the bakery, but people would still have to pay for their bread. In a barter system, goods and services are assigned a value by the people involved in the transaction and that value either falls or rises depending on the perceived need for that item at that particular time and place. If a cobbler wanted to trade some shoes for a new coat, they would be worth more to a barefoot tailor than to one with a closet full of shoes; just as the tailor’s coat would be worth more in the winter than in the summer. But neither the shoes nor the coat would be free.
Why People Will Continue to Work
Reducing the price of everything to zero would solve many of the world’s problems in addition to that of child starvation and malnourishment, but only if it would actually work. Obviously, the main question is why anyone would ever go to work if they could get everything they wanted for nothing. The answer, beyond the natural compulsion of human beings to be active, beyond the sense of gratification they obtain from helping others, and beyond the joy they experience when following their passions, is that they will continue to work; not because they’re forced to and not because there won’t be any alternative, but because they will perceive it to be in their own best interest to do so.
First of all, ask a thousand people what they would do for the rest of their lives if they were suddenly extremely wealthy and never had to work again and you’ll likely get a thousand different answers, but not one will seriously choose to sit in a chair day after day gazing through their window at the world outside.
Secondly, many people actually get great satisfaction from their jobs because they believe they are providing a unique and important benefit to their communities. Most teachers, for example, or fire fighters, police officers, rescue workers, doctors and nurses, to name just a few of the more obvious careers, would gladly work for nothing – if only they could. The sense of self-worth they feel when they teach someone a new skill, or restore someone to health, or save a person’s life is far more rewarding than the money they receive. When people are able to do something they’re passionate about, they look forward to going to work and lay down their tools reluctantly each evening. As a result, the service they provide or the goods they produce are of a far superior quality than would be the case if making money was their primary concern.
The third reason people would continue working, particularly the overwhelming majority of the world’s population who have gained little benefit under the current arrangement, is that they would be far better off under the new system than they were before. In a capitalist system, whether communist, socialist or strictly market based, the people are encouraged to work using a combination of rewards and punishments, the carrot and the stick. The punishment is very real. Those who are capable and yet don’t work quickly find themselves destitute, with neither food nor shelter, kept alive only by the charity of those who pity them. The reward however is far less certain. The promise of capitalism is fundamentally embodied in the idea of class mobility; that with thrift and industriousness, people can lift themselves and their descendants out of the legions of the poor, through the middle classes, to eventually join the ranks of the privileged elite. For most people though, for those who earn barely enough from their labors to pay for their food and shelter and other basic necessities of life, saving enough money to materially improve their quality of life is extremely difficult, if not actually impossible. In addition, the vast majority of people, lower class and middle class alike, live from paycheck to paycheck, with the proverbial sword of Damocles hanging by a thread above their heads, in constant danger, despite having worked hard all their lives, of losing everything they have struggled to achieve. In short, people living in a capitalist society work because they are afraid not to work.
In a utopian economy, there would be no punishment for not working and the reward for doing so would be both real and immediate. Because all goods and services would be free, no one would ever again need fear being without life’s necessities. People would work simply because they would want to work.
They would want to work because it’s contrary to their nature to be idle. People would want to work because, since training and education would be free, they would be able to do what they truly wanted to do, something they would find rewarding and consider a worthwhile use of their time and talents. They would participate willingly, even enthusiastically, because the only alternative would be either anarchy and chaos, or a return to capitalism.
There are, of course, jobs that currently no one would find either enjoyable or rewarding; jobs that are dirty, dangerous, or mind-numbingly repetitive. Coal mining, for example, is an extremely dangerous job; not only because of the constant danger of a cave in, but because of the near certainty of developing “black lung” disease. But the reason the miners develop this deadly condition is because the mines they work in are poorly ventilated, whether because the mine owners can’t afford the equipment necessary to provide the miners with fresh air, or because they choose not to in order to maximize the company’s profit margin. But in a utopian economy coal would be free so there would be no profit margin to maximize; and since the fans, ducts, and pumps would be free there would be no reason to not install them. By the same reasoning, since timbers would be free there would be no impediment to installing as many as necessary to ensure that there would be no more cave-ins.
So a job which, under capitalism, is dirty and dangerous and therefore undesirable, would be just the opposite in a utopian economy. It would be both cleaner and safer, a trade which miners, many of whom take great pride in their craft, would willingly continue to perform.
To many, working on the land is a noble and honorable profession, performed proudly by their families for generations. Yet in general it is considered undesirable because farm workers are paid very little and both their living and working conditions are deplorable. They toil from dawn to dusk under the blazing sun with no canopy to give them shade or misters to keep them cool. In the evening, after a simple meal, they sleep in sub-standard housing, with as many as ten to twelve in a single room.
In a capitalist economy, independent farmers make little or no profit from their labor, mainly because the price of food has to be kept low enough that the general population can afford to eat. So they simply can’t afford to pay their workers a living wage, provide them with decent living quarters, or buy the equipment that would be necessary to shield them from the elements as they work. But in an economic system where the building materials and the equipment would be free, those people who love the land and are proud to work it would willingly continue to do so.
It is true that all people are created equal in the sense that no one is born to rule while another is born to serve. But it is just as true that all people are not equally capable of doing all tasks. Not everyone who enters medical school finishes, and not all doctors have the skill to perform open-heart surgery. But everyone is capable of doing something, and there are those who, due to physical and intellectual limitations, can only do jobs that other, more capable, people consider tedious and unchallenging; and they would do them gladly because they would be providing a necessary and therefore valuable service to their community – to the best of their ability. In a capitalist economy where everyone is not accorded an equal opportunity to develop their natural talents, these jobs are performed by people who are capable of much more. As a result, those who are mentally or physically challenged are denied the chance to contribute to society. But in a society where training and education are free to all, no one would need to perform tasks that are below their capabilities.
Hoarding, Monopolization & the Question of Scale
Naturally, once people can have whatever they want for free, some of them may at first decide to hoard certain items. For example, while people obviously need different styles of footwear for different occasions, for most people this means a half dozen or so pairs at most, and while fashion conscious people would undoubtedly want more styles than others, virtually nobody would choose to have a hundred pairs of shoes taking up all their closet space when they could get a new pair whenever they wanted.
Still, someone might decide to control the production of shoes. It is possible that the owners of all or most of the shoe factories could stop making shoes unless certain demands were met. Of course, if the shoe factories lay within the boundaries of the utopian society; the people could simply remove the factory owners from their offices, by force of arms if necessary. Otherwise, the people would be forced to either give in to the shoe manufacturers’ demands, accept the fact that they had to live without shoes, or build their own factories – if they could. The only real choice, of course, would be to make their own shoes; which illustrates a vitally important point. In order to succeed, a utopian society must contain within its own borders all of the natural resources needed to provide the basic necessities of modern life.
Utopian societies that have been attempted in the past and have failed weren’t able to produce everything they needed to live comfortably, and as a result were forced to sell that which they could produce in order to buy that which they couldn’t, becoming in effect capitalist enterprises in the process. In short, they failed because they were too small, too limited in resources. It’s simply a matter of scale. To be successful, a utopian society would have to be at least continental in extent.
It’s true that there are certain extremely rare elements that are critical for the manufacture of products that, while not necessary, might nonetheless be desired by the people. In such a case, the utopian society would have to trade some of its precious metals, gold and silver for example, that are highly valued by capitalist societies.
Gold and silver are considered valuable specifically because they are relatively scarce, but in an economy where everything is free, gold would have no purchasing power at all. It would be useful, because of its intrinsic qualities of malleability and conductivity, but a barrel full of gold would buy no more than a lump of coal.
Diamonds are another example of something valued because of its scarcity. However, while they are indeed quite useful in the manufacture of drill bits due to their hardness, their value is due principally to their aesthetic appeal, an appeal entirely artificial in nature, created and maintained through the use of mass advertising by a diamond cartel. Absent constant reinforcement, diamonds would have no greater appeal than any number of gemstones, either natural or manmade, such as rubies, emeralds, or even cubic zirconia.
Another question is, if people could have whatever they wanted for free, why anybody would choose to live in a cottage instead of a mansion or to drive a sedan instead of a sports car. The answer is that cottages and mansions, sedans and sports cars, serve different purposes and are therefore more or less preferable depending upon a person’s circumstances. A sports car would be useless to a family with small children, just as a single person or a couple would find a cottage much easier to maintain that a mansion.
The Effects on Everyday Life
In many ways, the change in economic systems would be barely noticeable. People would continue to shop at the same stores, for the same products, in the same way. They would still choose which items they wanted and the clerks would still record the selections for inventory management purposes. The shop owners would continue to re-order products and re-stock their shelves. Manufacturers would still order the necessary raw materials or components which would be fabricated, mined and harvested just as they have been in the past. The only difference would be that the factories would pay nothing for the raw materials, the shop owners would pay nothing for the finished products, and the customers would pay nothing at the check-out stand. Nothing else need necessarily be changed. However, people may very well choose to avail themselves of opportunities that will inevitably emerge.
One obvious example would be in the transportation of consumer goods. In a capitalist economy where corporations are in constant competition for an ever growing market share each company operates its own manufacturing plants and distribution centers. Each factory ships its company’s product to its company’s warehouses from where the items are again trucked to hundreds of separate retail outlets, each one of which could receive any number of separate deliveries from as many different manufacturers. But in a utopian economy the whole concept of market share would be obsolete and the various companies would have no need to compete. Indeed, there would be nothing to compete for. As a result, many separate distribution systems could be consolidated allowing for a much more efficient use of fuel and the production of far less pollution and wear and tear on the transportation infrastructure.
One area in which the change of economic systems would be noticeable would be housing which, with its restricted supply, would have to be handled differently than other commodities. Clearly, it is almost certain that several people would be interested in any particular available residence. In that event, the future occupants would have to be randomly selected from a pool of applicants previously sorted by family size. Obviously, a six bedroom house would be more appropriate for a family of eight or more than for a family of three or four, so larger families would have to be given preference. By the same token, smaller families would be given preference for any two bedroom houses or apartments. This doesn’t mean that a small family living in a large residence at the time the economic system is changed would be removed. Only newly constructed buildings, or those that became vacant for some reason, would be affected.
The rules and regulations which people have instituted to manage their societies would also not need to be changed. People would still need to be licensed and qualified to work in their chosen field or profession. Doctors would still need to go to medical school and their performance would still be evaluated by the same review boards. But since medical school would be free, many more people would have the opportunity to become doctors. City councils would continue to set land use policies and oversee all of the myriad of details involved in the proper operation of civic life. Murder, rape, assault, theft, arson and all other criminal activity would still be just as illegal and prosecuted by the same judicial system. And, of course, the armed forces would continue to protect the society from invasion and insurrection. In fact, the most remarkable aspect of the change from capitalism to utopianism is how little the existing social and cultural institutions would be altered.
But while the social infrastructure would remain largely unchanged, society itself would be completely and utterly transformed. Beyond putting an end to child starvation; beyond the unlimited access to material goods, health care, and education; beyond the improvements in living and working conditions; beyond the unrestricted opportunity for personal development; even beyond the fact that people would no longer be living in a state of constant anxiety and even fear; the eradication of poverty would give rise to a multitude of profound and far-reaching effects, and while it would be quite impossible to consider them all, a few examples might be in order.
– Free and unrestricted access to medical care would result not only in both a drop in infant mortality rates and an increased life expectancy, but combined with the fact that people would no longer be living in a state of continual anxiety, far fewer strokes, heart attacks, and other stress related illnesses.
– Once the profit motive was removed, there would be no drug dealers, no prostitution, no violent street gangs, no gambling, no human trafficking and far fewer thefts.
– When people are no longer forced to accept any job they can find no matter how distant there’ll be much less commuting, traffic congestion, and pollution from cars.
– The removal of cost as an impediment to research will result in far greater progress in the development of solar, wind, geothermal and other sources of renewable energy and as a result far fewer greenhouse gasses will be produced which in turn will slow down the pace of global warming.
– Consumer goods will be of a higher quality when profit is no longer a factor, corners no longer need to be cut, inferior materials no longer need to be used and the people producing them take pride in their work.
– There will be no reason to defraud anyone, no funds to embezzle, no stocks to manipulate, no need for banks, credit cards or insurance companies, and no need to advertise.
Establishing that utopianism is a superior economic system isn’t difficult, the obvious benefits have been recognized since the concept was first introduced by St. Thomas More in 1516. Today, as then, the problem lies in determining how to bring the change about – how to get “there” from “here.”
Revolution can be imposed either from above or from below. In either case, before a large number of human beings will change their way of doing things, they need to recognize a clear and pressing necessity for doing so. The common people of France didn’t reject their ancient tradition of monarchy because a handful of philosophers believed the true source of sovereignty lay in the hearts of the people. They risked their lives on the barricades because their kings and queens had been unable to provide them with bread. Given the alternatives of either another monarch (that is, more of the same), or anarchy and chaos, they agreed to try the radical new theory of republicanism and popular sovereignty in spite of the fact that, not only had it never before been attempted on such a grand scale, but virtually no one else in the world believed that it could possibly succeed.
Before people will demand a change of economic system, they will have to clearly recognize that capitalism is inherently bi-polar in nature and thus predicated upon inequality, that it is a system of “haves” and “have nots,” that the gap between the two can only grow wider over time and that it will never provide them with the quality of life they would have under utopianism.
Unlike changing a political system, such as replacing monarchy with republicanism, given the complex and fragile nature of the current global economy, the move from capitalism to utopianism need not be violent. Indeed, it cannot be. Any attempt to bring about the change through force of arms would be doomed to ultimate failure simply because once the flame of passion died down, people would quickly come to view the relative comfort of capitalism as preferable to the inevitable pain and suffering the conflict would cause. However, since no economic system can succeed without the cooperation of the people, the revolution from below could be peacefully and easily achieved through a general strike. Recalling that a utopian society would need to be continental in scale, if a sufficient number of people perhaps as few as twenty percent of the population, stayed home from work for as little as a month, the capitalist economy of that continent, if not the entire planet, would fail, and a utopian economy could then be instituted in its place. The transition period however would be difficult and chaotic since little if any preparation would have been made in advance.
The preferable method by far would be revolution from above. Much unnecessary confusion would be avoided when the political and intellectual leaders of each of the continent’s nation states planned for the eventual switch and laid the necessary groundwork beforehand. The people would then be prepared for the changeover, which would be accomplished easily at the most opportune time by decree. The difficulty with this approach, as with all revolutions from above, arises out of the necessary existence of an enlightened political leadership, not of one nation alone, but of several.
However, whether the revolution comes from above or below, those who are currently reaping the greatest benefits of capitalism will bitterly oppose it, just as the monarchs and the nobility of the eighteenth century opposed the institution of representative democracy in revolutionary France. Without a doubt, they will avail themselves of every opportunity to prevent any change in the status quo. The armed forces of the newly created utopian society and the people themselves will need to be vigilant in the defense of their right to create a more utilitarian and egalitarian economic system.
Economic systems, like everything else in the world, aren’t static. They continually change and evolve. In the early days when humans lived in extended family units of hunter-gatherers, every member of the group participated in the production of food and everyone partook of the fruits of that labor, albeit not necessarily in what we today would consider an equitable basis. After many thousands of years, people learned how to cultivate crops and domesticate animals. They settled into villages, then towns, and eventually cities; producing not only surpluses of food, but specialty items such as pottery, textiles, and jewelry. As a result, the economy of these people soon evolved into one of trade and barter – the most primitive form of capitalism. Eventually, metal smiths began forming the more malleable metals such as gold, silver and copper into coins as a means of facilitating the exchange of goods in the marketplace. Money, of course, needed to be regulated, a standardized system of weights and measures had to be established, and in these and other ways the use of money had an important organizing effect on society. In time, capitalism would evolve through more and more complex stages into today’s global economy. But evolution is a continual process and without question our present economic system will continue to adapt and change. It was developed by people to suit their needs and will most certainly change as people’s needs change.
Capitalism, while a useful and even necessary development, is incapable of adequately addressing the problems facing the world today. Because money is itself a commodity, and as such subject to the law of supply and demand, its value is intrinsically dependent upon a relative scarcity of supply. That is to say, in order for there to be “haves” there must absolutely be “have nots.” Poverty can never be eradicated or even substantially reduced as long as money; whether in the form of coin, cash, check or credit, is used as a medium of exchange. It’s because of this inescapable fact that every problem whose root cause is poverty, including child starvation and malnourishment, will continue to plague humanity for as long as we cling to a capitalist economic system.
Utopianism on the other hand, would eliminate, not all, but a great many of the world’s problems. The partition of society into rich and poor would be instantly dissolved making everyone, not equally poor, but equally rich. The shift from forced labor to voluntary labor will result in far superior goods and services, while unrestricted access to education will unleash the potential of every human being and usher in a golden age of arts and sciences.
Of course, before the transition from capitalism to utopianism can occur, the case for doing so must first be clearly and succinctly presented so that people can conceptualize both the existence of the alternative and the possibility of effecting the change. I sincerely hope that this brief essay has, in some small way at least, contributed to the realization of that end.
© 2007 Armand E. Legare all rights reserved