A Capital Idea Part 137: Capitalism's Externalities
I am talking about the externalities of capitalism itself here, not the externalities of a capitalistic operation, such as "the oil pipeline destroyed some sensitive habitat, and when it leaked, it caused pollution which taxpayers paid to clean up." Capitalism's losers bear significant human costs, emotionally, physically and behaviorally. Having just celebrated my eleventh wedding anniversary yesterday, I am reminded that such costs include high divorce rates. Seeing my aging parents the previous day, which was Thanksgiving Day, reminds me of capitalism's health problem externalities as well.
There is a very clear link between stress and divorce, just as clear as the link between poverty and stress, or between any type of economic hardship and stress. Similarly, there are also clear links between stress and poor health, and between poverty or economic insecurity and stress. Thus, when we hear people such as Alan Greenspan speaking in coded language about keeping the supply of potential workers high and their security and wages low, such friends of capitalism are also saying, "Let's make the average person insecure and less healthy; let's cause marital stess and high divorce rates." Of course, they would never say that directly, but rather, obfuscate such realities and attempt to negate them, with glittering "capitalism is great" or "capitalism is necessary" talk.
Increased divorce rates and more health problems, however, are only two of the more obvious and objectively measurable effects of capitalism's many losers and few winners system. Additionally, capitalism appears to have a deleterious effect on a variety of other "misery index" measures such as murder, suicide and psychological disorders. We live in a nation virtually secure from invading armies, with only rare incidences of international terrorism to disturb our sense of safety as a nation. Yet, Americans kill each other at high rates, propagate fear of foreign attackers, and often drive drunk, distracted, impatiently or tired, causing a great, never ending toll on the nations roadways. We tend to overwork, voluntarily or otherwise, yet complain about slackers who live on government welfare. Depression rates have been increasing, and probably anxiety rates as well; suicide rates are chronically on the high side, as well as murder suicides. This is despite having more and better treatments over time for depression and anxiety. Similarly, child abuse rates remain stubbornly high despite increased understanding of its causes and how it may be reduced. I suspect that the best treatment for those psychological and social ills will prove to be a progressive, egalitarian society with maximal opportunities for democratic participation and for self-determined productive activities.
Even among those who are not victims of "misery index" ills, the insecurity and stess which most people face under capitalism has a very deleterious effect on happiness, causing people to enjoy what they have less and worry about not having it, more. Perhaps that is why fear-motivated politics and negative campaigning have proven to be so effective over the years, although the public seems to be getting a bit tired of and immune to this approach. By every measure, Americans should be enjoying life greatly. We have toys and gadgets which probably weren't even dreamed of 100 years ago. Most of us have all the food that we want, with greater available variety than ever before. We have comfortable places in which to live -- those of us who are not homeless. Certainly, the first two levels of Maslow's hierarchy of needs -- physiological needs and safety needs -- are readily taken care of for the large majority of us. Yet, we consistently have mediocre success on ratings of happiness. Perhaps it is time that we should add a level for "sense of security needs," in between "safety needs" and" love and belongingness needs" in Maslow's hierarchy. Meanwhile, living with constantly high stress levels and pressures has detracted from Maslow's third level, which is "love and belongingness needs." Perhaps we also should add a level to Maslow's hierarchy, for "freedom to pursue interests needs" between his two highest needs, "esteem needs" (the fourth level) and "self-actualization needs" (the fifth level). Most of us under capitalism, even those who are doing well and feeling good about themselves, feel only limited freedom to pursue their interests.
I should point out here that happiness is probably not the best measure of people's overall well-being, unless it is redefined to match something like Maslow's hierarchy better. Happiness, as is self-esteem, too often results from superficial sources, such as the casual feedback of other people, or leisure pursuits which serve no socially useful function and may even be detrimental to the greater good in some cases. However, I do not know of any large studies of self-actualization among representative samples, much less any international comparisons of the measure. There is a measure of self-actualization called a "Q-Sort," developed by a student of Carl Rogers named Stevenson, but its application is either in therapy situations or in specific studies of personality as far as I know. I would be interested in seeing international, or other, comparisons based on measures of self-actualization such as the Q-Sort, and would expect that more competitive, capitalistic cultures would actually stunt self-actualization by producing conditions of economic and social insecurity, and by limiting peoples' ability to pursue their own interests through channelling them into highly specialized careers, often of limited interest, and forcing people to be career focused to the exclusion of most outside interests.
Thus, as I have described, the externalities of capitalism are highly pervasive and detrimental to human well-being in various insidious ways. An economic system will always channel peoples' activities to an extent, but it is not necessary that peoples' lives be so devoted to the system as in the financial capitalism system that we are so familiar with. The economy that we have, is one in which the people serve the economy. The economy that we need, is one in which the economy serves the people -- an economy which serves to give people a sense of security as well as taking care of material needs, and an economy in which opportunities for people to pursue the greater good through their special talents and interests, are optimized. By serving the people, the economy will enhance peoples' well-being and ultimately, their opportunties to make the most of their lives -- that is, the chance to achieve what humanists such as Rogers and Maslow called "self-actualization."