I remember being taught in school about “The tragedy of the commons,” a supposedly universal rule of human greed and lack of foresight which makes it necessary to have an economic system that idolizes private property. Unless people have the right to control, use, and exchange something for money, so the doctrine goes, they will not value it and won’t take care of it. It’s true that the imaginary homo economicus of classical economic theory is this stupid and shortsighted. But homo economicus represents a one-dimensional and grossly distorted theory of human nature. The true tragedy of the commons is not that humans never know how to properly value and use common property, it’s that capitalist exploiters keep getting away with plundering it. The economic fiction of “externalities” is simply a shorthand way of saying that, given a chance, all business enterprises will foist as many of the costs of their activities onto the public at large as they can. We see it today with the poverty-level wages paid by almost all retail and restaurant employers in the U.S. Between the hourly wages they pay, restrictions on full-time work, and refusal to give workers predictable schedules so they can either get other part-time jobs, take classes, or just spend more time with their families, these employers keep their workers trapped in poverty, and we taxpayers pick up the slack between what the workers earn and what they need to keep body and soul together.
Churches and other charities also strive mightily to fill these gaps. Yet simply raising the minimum wage would not only lift millions of people out of poverty, it would also stimulate the economy as a whole and create jobs. But poor people don’t vote, middle class people don’t understand the structural component of poverty, inequality and unemployment, and the people who benefit from maintaining the status quo are calling all the shots.
In Utopia, Thomas More’s main character talks with the Cardinal of “the increase of pasture by which your sheep. . . may be said now to devour men and unpeople, not only villages, but towns.” Because wool in that time had become a profitable commodity, the churchmen, nobles, and gentry “stop[ped] the course of agriculture, destroying houses and towns. . . and enclos[ing] grounds.” More was talking about the “Inclosure Acts” which privatized 6.8 million acres of public land in the United Kingdom between 1604 and 1914. In Capital, Karl Marx describes the massive dispossession of commoners all over Europe and the British Isles in the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in his chapter on “original accumulation.” Despite the bland-seeming name he gives the practice, his description makes it clear that capitalists simply stole common wealth and converted it into the money it took to transform feudalism.
This thieving and plundering is still going on. Supposedly the relentless push to monetize everything is inevitable and invincible. But not only is another world possible, this miserable, irrational, inhumane, sociopathic world we live in now is only 400 years old at most. More an more people are seeing past the unscientific and destructive dogma upon which the religion of the market is based. Pope Francis has referred to “the idolatry of money” and the “tyranny” of the market. Theologian Harvey Cox said in a 1999 Atlantic article that “the market” is treated as all-knowing and all-powerful (and that this belief, like many religious affections, is unfounded and irrational.).
Whoever builds the frame for an argument controls it. Employers who keep their workers in wage slavery claim “the market” dictates what the “prevailing wage” is. In one sense that is true. Right now labor supply is excessive, which means there’s no upward pressure on wages, while the federal minimum wage is no longer livable. But unemployment is a social construct. Capitalism invented working for wages and created dependency on money. As Marx explained, “original accumulation” stripped peasants of every resource they had for staying alive, leaving them with nothing but their skins to sell, and then it put all the power over the labor force into the hands of the employers, whose only motivation is maximizing profit. People have become commodities. Workers are “human resources,” not human beings.
There’s plenty to say about reframing our thinking about economics. For an excellent piece that critiques President Obama’s faith in the market and alludes to some alternative models, see this piece in Salon by Bill Curry. I will write more about the fallacies of homo economicus. In the meantime, any time someone starts saying this or that public service should be “run like a business” and starts evangelizing the religion of the market, remember that “privateer” means “pirate.”
Amy Durfee West is pursuing a PhD in ethics from Boston University School of Theology, where she earned an M.Div. in 2012. She has a law degree and practiced law in her home town of Denver, Colorado for 28 years. She blogs at www.durfeewest.com and can be found on Twitter as @HeartOverDBars.twitter.com.
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