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The Post-Work Society, and the Possibility of “Enough”: Are Human Wants Insatiable?

In considering the prospect of a post-work society one important question is “Given rising productivity, can we imagine a world in which a critical mass of human beings will feel they have enough things, sufficiently so that striving after the gain of more things will cease to be central to their lives?”

The standard reply of those who determine the orthodoxy in the field of economics — those who teach in the colleges (especially the colleges where those who get tenured professorships are likely to themselves be trained), those who edit the field’s journals and publish in them, those who get prizes like the Nobel — and those who get hired as consultants or appointed to high public office — is “No. Never. Don’t even think about it.” Indeed, they go to great lengths in arguing why we should not even think about it, dismissing essential physical needs and material realities in favor of a relativistic subjectivism they are prepared to push to preposterous extremes. Thus will they tell us that a billionaire’s desire for “one more ivory backscratcher” is no less a “need” than the need of someone literally starving to death for food, and its lack no less painful; and make much of how, for example, we might be able to give everyone a house, but there will only be so many lots around Lake Como, and that this will mean scarcity oppressing us as much as before we gave everyone a house; etc., etc., etc..

In considering such absurdities it seems relevant here that the economists in question espouse a dark, misanthropic view of human nature, and with it a pessimism about the prospects for a free, comfortable, happy life for very many of those on the planet — a view which is not without significant political implications. After all, if human wants are as infinite and insatiable — and relative — as they say then there is no getting off the treadmill of getting and spending, no end to the Rat Race and its ugliness, and no point to any reforms, whose benefits would only be lost on the grubby little can’t-ever-satisfy-them bastards they see the general public as being.

Still, if the insatiability of human wants is an article of faith for economists (whose teaching is, of course, seen by many as a faith masquerading as science), it does seem fair to say that others have made a case that the matter is exactly the opposite of the way that such economists tell us it is, the “law of diminishing marginal returns” (ironically, another concept from economics, and indeed its mainstream) operative here. The implication of this argument is that for people who are really poor more money and more consumption (money for food, money for shelter, money to relieve pressing physical wants) really do make for more satisfaction and contentment and “happiness” — while in line with the aforementioned “law” the further away one is from being so poor the less does added money and consumption improve their sense of well-being.

In short, no matter how much orthodox economists sneer, that extra ivory back-scratcher really does mean less than that food for the starving person, the house for someone who is homeless mean less than the view of Lake Como for the already well-housed.

Indeed, one study of note suggested that we might hit a point at which simply having more money contributes little to one’s subjective sense of well-being, concluding that after a country’s per capita National Income hit $13,000 in the terms of a generation ago (or, after adjustment for inflation, $25,000 or so in today’s terms) more growth does not in itself produce a sense of greater well-being. Going by World Bank figures at present over thirty countries are above that mark in nominal terms (pretty much all the North American, West European, East Asian and Australasian nations we call “advanced industrial” or “developed”). Dozens more do so when we go by Purchasing Power Parity (with states like Russia or Chile making the cut). Additionally those countries that do not make the cut are often not very far short of it (with the world average closing on $19,000 by the latter measure last year).

Does this mean that anyone whose country has $25,000 a year per capita can sit back content in the knowledge that life is as good as it gets? Of course not, innumerable other factors complicating the issue. People may well be personally poor in a society that is rich — and still left with unmet material needs of such a kind that a bit of money would mean a real improvement in their sense of well-being. A lot depends on how wealth is distributed, and perhaps even more fundamentally on how the provision of essentials is organized. (After all, we know from experience that even in a relatively affluent society — such as the U.S., with a per capita income nearly three times what the study identified as the requirement — a significant fraction of the population may suffer hunger, homelessness and other fundamental material lacks, with all their associated misery.) Still, the existence of scientific evidence that human needs (and “needs”) may start being sated at a level well below what millions have, and minute next to what a handful have, is a powerful rejoinder to the preachers of want and misery as humanity’s eternal lot — and with it, the idea that the Rat Race need be the center of life forever.

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Nader Elhefnawy

Nader Elhefnawy is the author of the thriller The Shadows of Olympus. Besides Medium, you can find him online at his personal blog, Raritania.