The Myth of Scarcity 3

The Myth of Scarcity 3

Over the past few days, we have seen that the Myth of Scarcity is mistaken on a number of points. There is no need to fear shortages of food, water, land, energy, or money. These are the main things that people are afraid of losing.

Today we tackle the second part of the Myth of Scarcity, the part that counsels fear of other people when faced with scarcity. This fear is equally as unjustified as the fears we have debunked already, but it reveals a very dark aspect of Conservatism that must be demolished if humans are to have a thriving future on this planet.

And then we will end today’s installment with the conclusion of our thoughts on the Myth of Scarcity: We must demolish it, together with the conservative belief system that lives on it.

Fear of others rooted in profound pessimism about human nature

The notion that scarcity brings out the selfish, brutish core of people comes from a very old and very deep place in the human collective consciousness. One can hardly grow up on this planet without being exposed to, and coming to believe in some measure at least, the old story of how people revert to rapacious beasts when confronted with scarcity.

We don’t need to let this old story keep us under its spell any longer. Indeed, it was outmoded long ago. But old stories that are deeply rooted in culture don’t just go away once the reasons for telling them are gone. Instead, the stories linger in our memories and are retold whenever events seem to resemble them. They become myths when current reality no longer corresponds to them.

The Hobbesian story that man is a brute unless controlled by force is no longer applicable to modern society. Of course, there is a certain plausibility to this story. Many examples could be cited of individuals and groups that become wild when societal controlling forces are removed. Yes, of course, there are still people who only respond to force. But by and large the world has moved on, and such people are no longer the representatives of most human beings.

This is because there is another story that can compete with Hobbes’s story. Americans, for instance, live in a political system founded on the insights of John Locke, among others. Locke, unlike Hobbes, did not view human beings as fundamentally amoral near-animals who need to be constrained by fear of punishment. Of course he recognized that element in man, but he also saw that humans have intellect. Alongside avidity, they have good will. In addition to pleasure-seeking, they also have the desire to excel. These positive traits, when accompanied by man’s most constructive faculty—intellect—form the basis for a much more positive story about human nature, namely, that we are creatures who can resist our fearful instincts, side with our better angels, and use our minds to overcome adversity.

Hobbes’s story is fundamentally pessimistic: we are self-centered and acquisitive by nature, and can only stamp out those essential traits by force. Locke’s story is fundamentally optimistic: we are intelligent and decent by nature, and can resist our negative impulses, if we wish. If you accept Hobbes’s story, your opinion of your fellow creatures has to be overwhelmingly negative, and you learn to act toward them suspiciously. If you accept Locke’s story, your opinion of your fellow creatures may be much more charitable, even overwhelmingly positive if you like, and you can learn to act toward them with forbearance and cooperativeness.

Faith in others just as rational as fear of them

In fact, there is no need to accept Hobbes’s story, to view others with suspicion, and to fear that people will become animals when faced with scarcity. History shows us plenty of examples in which people instead reach down into themselves and become better than usual under conditions of stress. The way in which they do this is to use their intelligence to reinforce their positive impulses when dealing with difficulties, rather than responding impulsively to their fears.

The real tragedies of mankind are not the hardships themselves, and not the bestial behavior that we sometimes let ourselves slip into as a result of hardship. They are the many, many opportunities we miss for pulling ourselves up ever higher by meeting the hardships that come our way with creativity, concern for others, and decent behavior. When we allow ourselves to sink into depravity just because we face an obstacle to our survival, we create an unnecessary tragedy out of what is merely a hardship.

It is always our choice whether to behave one way or the other. It is never an automatic response, and so it does not show anything determinate one way or the other about our human nature. We always have the freedom to choose whether to act like beasts or like angels.

So scarcity will not inevitably result in viciousness and brutality. It simply is a Myth that humans will become rampaging brutes when faced with shortages. On the contrary, it is up to us whether we become better or worse when faced by such challenges. So it is foolish to succumb to the Myth of Scarcity and allow it to generate and maintain in us suspicion, hostility, and negativity toward other people.

The Myth of Scarcity poisons life unnecessarily

The conclusion of all these reflections should be clear. The Myth of Scarcity is based on faulty evidence, poor thinking, instinctive fears, and pessimistic assumptions about our fellow human beings.

We do not need to fear scarcity in itself. Certainly scarcities will continue to happen, either because nature raises her hand against human beings capriciously, or because humans fail to think ahead prudently and do now what is right for the future. But we are certainly up to the task of planning ahead to meet scarcities, and of thinking ahead to try to head off shortages by acting more sagaciously in the present. The only question is whether we will do that. This is, without doubt, within our own choice. And anything that we can choose about is not an object of fear, since we can make it go away if we so choose.

Secondly, there is no need to fear how others will response to scarcities. Again, we can choose to help people respond well rather than badly to disasters by doing everything possible to plan for them in advance, by showing people by example that they will not be left to fend for themselves in such situations, and by each of us trying as hard as we can every day to do the right thing in relation to our fellows, so that we can all continue to choose the side of the higher angels of our nature, rather than the lower beasts.

We have the necessary external goods and the necessary internal goodness to make the world as good as it can be. We have only to choose to do it.

Let’s do it. Let’s eradicate the Myth of Scarcity.

What’s up next

The Myth of Scarcity is bad enough by itself. But starting tomorrow we’re going to see that it is only the start of a spiral into deeper and more debilitating fears and Myths about how the world works and how we must relate to the people around us. In the next installment, we will begin to see see that this Myth plants the seeds of an even more destructive Myth: The Myth of Self-interest.

3 comments (Add your own)

1. Jo wrote:
I enjoyed this essay, but it put me in mind of the videos I saw of folks actually fighting over items on offer on Black Friday! Geez. I think they failed to choose their better angels! When confronted with that behavior, this one is a hard sell, but I agree essentially correct in its reasoning. Thanks for this blog.

28 November 2012 @ 8:22 AM

2. Lindsey wrote:
Thank you for these posts, they make a very tricky subject easier to discuss with friends and foes alike. However, I was curious about this statement: "It is always our choice whether to behave one way or the other. It is never an automatic response, and so it does not show anything determinate one way or the other about our human nature." See, humans can only perceive info at a relatively slow rate, so there is a lot of awareness and behavior that goes unnoticed, as in...we act and THEN we think. In fact, automatic responses are occurring under-the-hood constantly. Emotions are generally considered automatic responses, and that is very important here - many conservatives (and everyone else) make choices based on subconscious, automatic emotional responses (mostly fear). They didn't choose to be afraid, they were prompted by stimuli. I agree with everything else, but in my experience freedom of choice becomes a greater illusion the more you look at it. There are lots of factors at work that determine whether we act like a beast or angel in any given moment. What do you think?

30 November 2012 @ 1:07 PM

3. Matt wrote:
Great essays, thank you! Lindsey has some insightful comments. I would suggest that it isn't even necessary to believe in free will to essentially believe most the essay's arguments. I suspect that in a society is which the idea of scarcity and competition over scarce resources were downplayed, the type of fear-driven emotional reactions that Lindsey describes would largely disappear even if people didn't become morally enlightened. Black Friday is a great example because many of the emotions driving this bad behavior are directly instigated by marketing propaganda and have nothing to do with natural scarcity or even with the natural desires of the people behaving badly. Put another way, if they weren't told that they need all of this "scarce" stuff, they might actually realize that (A) it isn't actually that scarce, and/or (B) they don't actually need it as much as they think that they do. This interpretation has nothing to do with free will and everything to do with how societal ethos can deform people's emotions.

6 December 2012 @ 3:25 PM

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