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Sunday, October 2, 2011

How Much is Too Much?

How much wealth is too little, too much and just right?  Lets us dispense immediately with the argument that there is no amount that is too much, that societies, and their governments, have no business setting lower and upper limits. 

The entire purpose of societal mores and rules, enforceable through governing institutions, is the stability and health of the society. Individual members of a society devote much of their effort to recognizing and following social rules…and they also devote a significant portion of their effort in discovering how to express personal desires by circumventing and defying of those rules.  The stability of a society requires the balancing of these agreeable and disagreeable tendencies by the tricky process of setting limits.

The health of a society is somewhat more difficult to consider, but is obviously as important as stability.  Stability can be attained by stasis, but health only by homeostasis.  A healthy society is one in which all of its parts are in functional relation, no part can be said to be dominating or irrelevant.  Think of a living body: Where would be the brain without the liver? Could the intestinal wall survive without the sweat glands?  To follow on with this analogy: fat is the storage of energy against future need and in that way resembles wealth. It might seem, in the most simple analysis, that one could, therefore, not have too much of it.  But clearly that is wrong since the whole functioning of the body is damaged by excessive concentrations of fat – the fully functioning homeostatic relationship is distorted and many different destructive and damaging conditions take control of the body; just as in a society, concentrations of wealth will disorient and distort social functioning to the detriment of the society’s health.

At the minimum, a stable and healthy society must be broadly understandable to its members, from the street sweeper to the college professor, from the employee of a nail salon to a bank president.  Though the community sets expectations, the interests of the members of the community must have clear and established routes of influence. The society should be seen as a need-meeting system from which the individual can explore the vicissitudes of life, and even more importantly, it should actually be that!  A society that parasitizes some of its members for the benefit of other members is not in homeostasis and is not healthy [1].  Concentration of wealth is the primary source of such imbalance.

So, there can be too much wealth, not only held by individuals and collective entities, but by the society as a whole; by this thinking, a pure collective society could have too much wealth, though not as readily as a capitalistic one.  The other end of the scale is obvious: there clearly can be too little wealth held by individuals, collective entities and societies as a whole; first defined by biological want and then by the social imbalances of exploitation and deprivation of the needed wealth to function fully within the social order [2].

It follows that if there can be too much of a thing and if there also can be too little of it, then there must be an amount or a range of amounts that are functionally “just right.”  This is the basic principle of homeostasis; the ill effects of too much trigger a mechanism for slowing down, while the (different) ill effects of too little trigger a mechanism to speed up.  Human societies are biological entities and must also follow these rules or fall to dis-ease.

Beginning with the easy and proceeding to the disputable: Too little has a clear floor of biological insufficiency; too little food, water, protection from the elements, safety and so forth.  Humans, like any animal, fight back when forced into these conditions as they attempt to establish the basic minimums for survival.  They can be successful when they fight back as coherent communities.

When is an individual responsible for basic biological essentials or at what point is the society to been seen as the primary force in the supplying and withholding of these essentials?  If the individual is completely responsible, then societies (collections of humans) are always at the near edge of anarchy and exist only as a momentary comfort.  If, on the other hand, human communities are recognized as the human unit and it is the community that is seen as the primary adaptive agent supplying both resource and order, then the society that doesn’t function to make it possible to acquire a minimal level of wealth to fully function in that society, is dysfunctional.

Land based communal societies all around the world clearly define this minimum and the varieties of social structures that support and enliven them.  They share a general form: materially simple, several levels of property rights and responsibilities with communal property as primary, interpersonal relations and obligations as the binding social glue.  The poor of every society always end up replicating this design in the ways available to them; it is not necessary to have a plan, humans are the plan.  These ways of organizing and living can be beautiful as well as brutal; the world abounds with example.

At the opposite extreme, as wealth begins to accumulate in a community, the disposition of it becomes the issue.  For this problem there are no innate guides; great accumulations of material surplus have never been a condition of human evolution and are only recently a concern.  And, just as with the excess of fat in a body, the excess of wealth in a community presents it with problems for which it has no ready solution.

Human societies are, like bodies, ‘flow through’ systems; when the flow of energy and material stops the system dies. “Wealth”, when it is distributed in the ecosystem where every detail is exploited and magnified in an adaptive design billions of years in the making, can be tapped on an as needed basis – as long as in kind compensations are faithfully made.  But when material accumulations are pulled from the ecosystem, walled off from it and made part of a closed system that refuses to compensate the source, then a sclerosis begins that spreads into both the biophysical systems and the wealth based human societies.

The full range of consequences that follow from either accumulating wealth primarily as communal property or as discrete packets of accumulation in the control of individuals or collective entities is not my subject here, but must be touched on. When the accumulation of material surplus comes into the control of individuals and collective entities rather than assignable to the community as a whole, the situation is easy to understand: those who have control of accumulated material surplus enjoy the consequences and will fight to maintain their position.  Those who have too little for security and comfort will naturally go to where the surplus is and try to take from it sufficient to ease their condition. 

Those with surplus will trade some of it away as a means to gain the help of a few of the less wealthy and these people will become dependent on the wealthy for their needs as they become the protectors of the rich.  But in giving some wealth away it becomes clear that they will need more to have more and to protect the more that they have.

Control of the surplus begins to be seen by both those who have it and those who do not as an attachment of the surplus to its controllers; it becomes associated with them in the ways of both classical conditioning and instrumental learning; such an arrangement begins to seem natural when, in fact, it is completely contrived.

Undefined assignment of resource and wealth to community leads to the problems that Garrett Hardin discusses in his much misinterpreted 1968 essay “The Tragedy of the Commons.”  The key, of course, is the designation, ‘undefined.’ The solution is really not so difficult: define the resource.  Mitigating the ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ effect can be achieved by a community regulation or by assignment to an individual overseer – what is different is where power is vested and the form of the consequences.

But let us not forget where from comes the concern in the first place: the accumulation of surplus in the community.  All communities, human, other species and ecosystems exist in a world of surplus, it is being stored and renewed in the biophysical and ecological cycles.  Most organisms only store tiny increments of extracted surplus as fat in their bodies, caches of food and labor products like beaver’s dams; and this is vital, they have all evolved instinctual (genetic) inhibiting regulator structures that organize, in exquisite detail, the ecosystems in which they live.

This is where and why it is necessary to discover the levels of wealth that lead to social dysfunction and then work out the design of social ‘homeostatic’ mechanisms that limit the total amounts of wealth that can be extracted from the environment and stored outside of environmental systems.  It is vital we (a critical mass of opinion setters) understand that humans have evolved an adaptive tool of great power, a tool that has slipped the bonds of the controlling agency of the Living System of Order; a tool that must, using its own agency, come into control of itself.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the present order is unraveling from both its internal design and its consequences on the environment and especially the ‘free services’ supplied by the environment.  I believe that it is more important to develop a conceptual structure that can respond to and from a variety of social and structural conditions than to try and develop a detailed plan for getting from our exact present state to some proposed ‘new’ one.  Our present state has become a kaleidoscope of forms, each an almost random result of the last set of events driven only by the wealth powers and no other vision. 

It is to the end of setting a foundation for a vision of the future that I make these arguments.  The first necessity for limiting total societal wealth is the storing of primary extracted wealth as communal property.  Private wealth as a base model will always create an exponential accumulation of excess with all the dysfunctional manifestations of our present condition. 

Economic systems need to be localized so that total accumulations are within the capacity of the communities to comprehend and control.  Levels of property rights must form so that individuals and family-like units have control of tools and other basic materials empowering self-reliance and responsibility [3].   “Business” must return to being a community-controlled function.   No individual should control more wealth than can be understood by the community as appropriate for community benefit.  The ethic must become that wealth is to be left in the ecosystem, only withdrawn as needed and with a clear expectation that the ecosystem will be compensated in meaningful ways for the taking.

These proposals contain great dangers, but certainly no more than the economic and environmental collapse, exacerbated by the possibility of nuclear Armageddon resulting from political collapse of nuclear nations, that we currently face.  I can think of many arguments against such proposals ranging from them being impossible (certainly true currently) to their creation of small warring city-state like entities clashing over resources and fundamentalist principles.  And there will be no testing of them or others like, and unlike, them until the present concentrations of wealth and power have exhausted themselves, but those living then will need some models from which to go on.

[1] In ecosystems ‘mutualism’ is the model.  The typical analogies from animal behavior for aggressive wealth accumulation, the lion and wolf, are really functional elements in the maintenance of ecosystem health; they have powerful instinctual inhibitions against attempting to collect excess using their great capacities as predators.

[2] An evocative presentation of this distinction can be seen in the Italian film, The Bicycle Thief.

[3] One of the great ironies of capitalism – especially as manifest in the present rhetoric – is that the ‘workers’ are supposed to be mature, responsible citizens trading their labor to the owners, but without any control over any of the conditions of their work, their lives while working or the terms under which they make the trade. 

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