What if we each thrived by default?

Is individual scarcity an inviolable rule of nature?

Like most parents, the pandemic has made me into a reluctant homeschooler. My daughter is 5, so we’re not really doing anything academically rigorous. One thing we’ve been doing that has at least some educational merit is watching nature documentaries. One of the things that has struck me most (and this is going to sound stupid) is how, for most animals, almost everything revolves around mere survival. Some grazing animals must spend almost every waking minute eating to avoid starvation.

I know, I know, they’re animals. Of course they don’t have a bunch of leisure time, let alone some higher sense of meaning in their lives.

But are most of us so different?

We’re also reading Farmer Boy, the story of a boy who grew up on a farm in the 1860s. Again, it’s notable in the book just how much time and effort is expended every day just to stay alive. But at this point in our species development, there is a bit more time and space for leisure, education, and entertainment. Not a lot, but some.

Today, we’re doing a little better in terms of how much of our time we spend on “survival”, but I still think it’s shocking that so many of us are not that different from an animal who needs to constantly be striving for survival or they’ll starve or be eaten by a predator.

One of the most pernicious things about capitalism is that it leverages this sense of individual desperation. I read a story about how some politicians are advocating for ending the increased unemployment benefits as a way to force people back to work. Those workers don’t feel safe going back, but we need them to go back to work in order to get the economy running again. And they’re desperate, so if we take away their unemployment benefits, they’ll have no choice.

Why do we just accept this? Why can’t we have a post-scarcity economy? Why must the default be homelessness, starvation, and death?

I’m sure you’ve seen Maslow’s hierarchy of needs before:

For many people, making it halfway up this pyramid is the most they can hope for. When you’re fighting hard every day just to meet your most basic needs, the idea of ever reaching “self-actualization” is laughable.

Does it have to be this way? Why can’t we engineer a society that ensures that everyone starts partway up this pyramid, and doesn’t have to fear falling down it?

It’s true that if we look at nature, this is the way things work for all animals. So in that sense, it’s part of the natural order.

But many things are part of the natural order that we don’t accept. As a species, we’ve managed to develop written language, life-saving medical interventions, and incredible technological advances. The concepts of higher education, representative democracy, and the modern legal system are not found in nature. We invented those to rise above our nature.

And yet in 2020 we still have a system where each individual must either work or starve. In spite of our progress, most of us still must spend our lives as grist for the mill of human progress. Why? Is there really no better way? Is that too powerful a force of nature that we cannot surpass it as we have others?

To be clear, I’m not arguing that we should give up capitalism tomorrow, because I have yet to see a system that works better. I’m skeptical that basic income will get us there, but exploring it is a step in the right direction.

But regardless of how or when we get there, I don’t think we should be super proud of the fact that we’ve built an entire civilization on the back of individual desperation. We should probably be slightly ashamed of it, and be working hard to find a solution, rather than just accepting it as the natural order.

Much love,
Ryan