Books: The Real Wealth of Nations

I read The Real Wealth of Nations, by Riane Eisler, at the suggestion of ModestyPress. I knew, based on what he said about it, that I would not agree with a lot of it, but I tried to read it with an open mind. Eisler makes some good points, but on the whole I have trouble understanding the high accolades given on the back cover. Archbishop Desmond Tutu calls it “as practical as it is hopeful,” but I had trouble finding much that is practical in it.

The major thrust of Eisler’s book is that traditional economic thinking is based on a hierarchical view of society, in which those on top dominate and those on the bottom submit out of fear and powerlessness. In particular, those who dominate are men, and the half of humanity that does the most important work – caring for others, especially children – is not valued as it should be.

Eisler’s vision is of a world where economic and social structures are based on partnership rather than domination, and the work of caring – for other people and for the natural environment – is valued highly, not just in words but in how economic decisions are made. Children are raised without fear of violence or abuse and receive a good education, people feel more satisfied with life and thus do not feel the need to fill their lives with material things, and crime sharply declines because people have what they need both physically and emotionally.

I can’t argue with the desirability of such a world, but I am not convinced by Eisler’s arguments about what it takes to get there. To begin with, there is the question of human nature. According to Eisler:

The belief that human beings are essentially evil and selfish – and hence the necessity for their strict control through hierarchies of domination – is a cornerstone of domination mythology. … This view of human nature is integral to popular free market capitalist theories, which are based on the premise that if each person acts only in their own selfish interest the result will be an economic system that benefits all.

Our family just had a discussion about human nature on the way home from picking up Zach at college last weekend. I don’t remember how the conversation started, but Jon explained that according to Reformed theology, humans are not evil but perverse. This means we are twisted, that we may do good but we also have a strong tendency to do wrong. We do right things for the wrong reason, we do things for the right reason but in the wrong way, and often we do act in downright selfish ways.

Free markets do not require that we be selfish, but they do allow for people acting in their own self-interest to benefit others as well as themselves. They work because they motivate others to provide the goods and services that we value, at the same time that we are providing the goods and services that others value.

I agree with Eisler that a good many of our problems come from people valuing the wrong things. We are so easily tempted to settle for short-term pleasure rather than investing in our future and our children’s future. Corporate executives make decisions to maximize quarterly profits but at the cost of long-term benefits. Parents (especially fathers, according to Eisler) spend money on themselves and fail to provide for their children’s health and education. People try to satisfy themselves with all the stuff that advertisements promise will make them happy, and have no resources left for the things that really matter in life.

According to Eisler, all this is the result of the domination systems that shaped our civilization. Even in nations that have replaced autocratic despots with democratically elected leaders, most of our social and economic institutions are still based on an authoritarian rather than partnership model of leadership. Eisler apparently cannot conceive of a household in which the father has the authority but does not abuse his power. I have seen similar conversations on worldmagblog, where conservative Christians explain that they make decisions in partnership with their spouses, and skeptical non-Christians do not believe that male headship and mutual submission can co-exist.

While Eisler pulls many of her examples of abuse of women from other countries, she decries the influence of the Christian Right in the U.S. She attributes to this group the growing belief that the father should be the authority in the home (she quotes a survey regarding the father being the “master,” though as I don’t know what other choices were offered, people may have taken that as the closest to their view despite the generally negative connotations of that word). She also considers their methods of child rearing to include child abuse.

I have heard stories of supposedly Biblical-based punishment that do sound like child abuse, but Eisler does not seem to make any distinction between real violence and the measured corporal punishment that many Christians (and non-Christians) use. To Eisler, it all contributes to children who live in fear and learn to be in denial about their parents’ behavior, because they depend on their parents. Then it contributes to adults who vote for leaders who continue the authoritarian patterns, because this is familiar and secure, even if it also perpetuates the domination systems.

I’m sure there is some truth in all this. But Eisler does not seem to allow for the possibility that people on the Christian Right (which she never defines) vote for the leaders they do for good reasons. She never mentions abortion, which I know is a big factor in many Christians’ decisions on how to vote, though as she does mention reproductive freedom for women, my guess would be that she supports “abortion rights.” She clearly thinks that people voting for pro-business Republicans are voting against their own economic self-interest – unless they happen to be among the minority of wealthy and powerful people who benefit from those policies.

She speaks of people “turning a blind eye” to the skyrocketing salaries of corporate CEOs. Let’s see – I’m going to go buy a flag polef today so we can display our flag for Flag Day this week. (I bought a flag and staff back in Michigan, but we left the pole mounted on the house when we sold it.) Under “practical steps” she says we should buy from companies that demonstrate the “caring economics’ that will make our world better. Do I need to find out the level of compensation of the CEO’s of companies that make flag poles before I buy one?

What about the store where I buy it? Do I need to find out how much the CEO of Menard’s makes? What about the company that made the hardware for the mounting kit, which is probably just purchased by the company that makes the pole, not actually made by them? What about the companies that handle the transportation of the flag pole from the manufacturer to Menard’s? Do I need to think about the company that manufactured the shopping cart that I use in the store?

It may sound like I am trying to take one point that Eisler makes to a ridiculous extreme. I’m sure Eisler realizes that everyone needs to buy all sorts of things and not every one of them can be purchased from a company that follows the kind of caring policies she promotes. She says that changing our economy is a process and that it will take time to get people to see things differently and create economic and social structures that will support the new values of caring.

But my whole point is that my buying a product from a company that pays its CEO a huge salary, while cutting jobs of factory workers, says nothing one way or another about what I think of their policies – other than that I don’t think it’s a reason to avoid buying a product that is what I want at a price I can afford. And my choice whether or not to buy their products is the only way I can affect them, unless I think it is appropriate to use regulation to change their behavior and I vote for politicians who will push for such legislation.

As far as I can tell, that’s what it comes down to – do we want companies to change based on our buying patterns, or to force them to change by using regulations? The free market says that I make my choices, and the company makes their choices to meet the demand shown by a whole lot of people, including me. The other choice is for the government to tell the company what to do – what to make, how much to pay, and so forth. (Our current economy is a mix of both. The question is which direction do we want to move.)

Eisler claims that both the free market and socialism have fallen short because neither makes a priority of caring. She sees her view as a third kind of economics, the kind that is based on caring. But I can’t see where it’s going to be significantly different. We can have a free market in a society where people teach the value of caring and it is reflected in their purchase decisions, and where companies find that caring for their employees increases their profits (Eisler devotes a chapter to describing companies that are doing this today).

Or we can have a government-regulated economy where companies are forced to do things a certain way because politicians think that is best for everyone. One big problem with that is that people simply do not agree on what is best for us, and the politicians will tend to push the agenda that is pushed on them the most, which tends to mean by the people with the most money.

I would guess that Eisler would say that I think this way because I am so indoctrinated in the domination way of thinking, that I can’t envision a different way. It’s kind of hard to argue with that, because no matter what I say she can say that. And it’s possible she’s right – I can’t very well rule out that possibility either. But on the whole, I am more inclined to trust to the working of the free market, where people get to make their own decisions, than on the wisdom of elected officials and unelected bureaucrats who are just as subject to being influenced by money (think lobbyists) as anyone else.

I read some interesting articles about the Nordic societies last night. Eisler gives them as an example of how a technologically advanced society (as opposed to the tribal societies she uses as examples of partnership economies) can base their policies on caring and still be successful economically. This article talks about the importance of trust in an economy, and how that is why the Swedish model is able to work. We don’t trust our government; they do trust theirs. (Another article explains that the very high rate of taxation in the Nordic economies is balanced by a very low rate of government regulation, so that on balance they are a good place to do business.)

And that gets back to the matter of human nature. As Eisler points out, we are capable of very caring behavior. It is also obvious that we are capable of very uncaring behavior. She says that it doesn’t work for just individuals to change; it requires that social structures change. The question is how to get those structures to change. If you use government to push the changes, you are using force – and how is that any different from the domination systems that Eisler wants to replace?

If you talk about caring (one of her recommendations for practical steps for individuals to take) and hope that eventually enough people think that way to make changes voluntarily, how is that different from what is happening already with companies choosing family-friendly policies within a (somewhat) free market framework? As I said above, I think Eisler makes some important points. But I think the way to positive change is in the context of free markets, not government coercion.

Economics is a very important subject, and also a difficult one. (It was probably the most difficult subject in my MBA studies.) I don’t know how well I have explained myself here, or how well I have conveyed the ideas of Eisler’s book. I encourage you to read the book if only to promote more thought and discussion on important topics. (I will warn that she does tend to repeat certain points a lot.) I question the effectiveness of some of Eisler’s recommendations. But if she gets more people thinking about economics and how it affects us and how we can shape it, that’s a good thing.

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2 Responses to Books: The Real Wealth of Nations

  1. modestypress says:

    Pauline,

    Thank you for reading Wealth of Nations and providing such an intelligent and thoughtful post (as I knew you would). I glanced at your reply a while ago, and just got a chance to read it carefully and in depth just now. I was a little worried when I first glanced at your post that I might have thrown discord into your marriage and personal life, but you have been navigating these difficult waters for a while, so I think you are doing OK with reading this book and with discussing it with your family.

    To be as brief as possible, I do not accept any religious explanation of the universe, and practically speaking, I do not accept any advice or guidance about how we should conduct our lives based on claims of divine inspiration.

    I eat well and exercise regularly so I can live as long and healthily as I can.

    I do not depend on prayer to keep my physical body alive. Eventually, I will die.

    I do know that it is quite likely that the very end of my life will involve quite a bit of physical (and probably psychological) suffering. That’s just the way of things.

    I am quite certain that once I do die, I will cease to exist in any form whatsoever. I am quite sureI have no “soul” or “spirit” to be rewarded or punished. The exhortation known as “Pascal’s wager” (the most common argument offered by evangelicals, no matter how they dress it up or disguise it) makes no sense to me. I prepare for my death as I can, by living my life in the moment as well as I can, by making my will, by treating the people I know as decently as I can. As Hamlet says [his last words in Shakespeare’s play], “The rest is silence.”

    While I am still alive, I live my life the best I can, both personally and as a social being, a member of society. I have no illusions that Eisler has a “magic potion” for making human political and economic life perfect and harmonious (and I suspect, neither does she have any such illusions). However, her suggestions seem “less bad,” than the ones that most people (individuals, countries, and ideologies, etc) try, so I will go with hers until I encounter something better. I figure, “least bad,” is the best we can do. As the saying goes, “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” I would revise it to be, “The least bad in this empirical world is better than the imaginary good of religious dogma about an imaginary spiritual world.”

    In my view, the purpose of religion is to reconcile people to suffering (which all people experience, though not equally, because life is unfair) in a universe that seems meaningless. Religion does not provide this reconciliation for me, for reasons I won’t bother to explain. My life has gone reasonably well. If I had suffered more, perhaps I would be a religious believer. I think I am not close enough to the end that I can make the final stretch without injecting the religious belief pain killer into my system. Time will tell. Thanks for putting up with me and thanks for posting interesting blog messages. As I regularly say now to everybody on whose blogs I post comments: you may delete any of my comments as you prefer and find desireable.

    I will say that I consider you an intelligent, ethical, brave, and admirable person. Again, thanks for letting me comment on your blog and for from time to time reading things I suggest and for posting courteous, intelligent, and interesting comments.

  2. renaissanceguy says:

    Well done. You wrote cogently and clearly. I have not read the book, so I dare not comment on it, but I think your thoughts are brilliant. As I was reading the first few paragraphs I thought, but it still boils down to having a free market or a controlled market or something in between. Then you made that point very well.

    I wonder how Eisler suggests people raise their children without discipline but with “caring.” What exactly would that look like? I wonder how she would suggest that any institutions actually make decisions and take action without some kind of leadership, even if it is caring and cooperative leadership.

    Maybe I wil look for a copy of the book and read it, although it is hard for me to read things like that without getting angry inside.

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