28th March 2012
But what if the growth equals joy equation is fundamentally flawed? What if greed is bad? What if we are chasing an impossible target of constant improvement? And what if economists are redundant – the failed alchemists of our age?
This sums up the questions raised by the thesis of Czech academic and political adviser Tomáš Sedláček. He has broken ranks with his co-professionals, advocating a cultural and moral approach to money, rather than rely on economics.
Growth leads to debt
In an interview with German news magazine Der Spiegel he posits that an economic policy which only pursues growth will always lead to debt. It is simply the degree of debt that is uncertain – at times it will be "manageable" at others, it will lead to the misery currently experienced in Greece. But it's the same debt. Besides money to be repaid or renegotiated by subsequent generations, we also leave environmental debts.
Virtually unknown in the UK, 35 year old Sedláček was a former adviser to the Czech finance ministry and to the former Czech president Vaclav Havel.
Now the author of Economics of Good and Evil and wants to turn conventional economics on its head. The usual pattern is of an economic base and a moral or "how we want to live" superstructure built on it. Sedláček reverses that. He says how we want and ought to live should determine the financial superstructure. In some ways, his views on economics resonate with those of Harvard lecturer Michael Sandel on politics.
Sedláček believes that far from being "good", greed, one of the seven deadly sins, is corrosive. He says: "Mankind's oldest stories tell us that greed is always Janus-faced. It is an engine of progress, but it's also the cause of our collapse. Being constantly dissatisfied and always wanting more seems to be an innate natural phenomenon, forming the heart of our civilization. The original sin of the first human couple in the Garden of Eden was the result of greed."
Greed in the Garden of Eden
He adds: "According to Genesis, the forbidden tree was a feast for the eyes, rather like modern advertising. Eve and Adam grab the opportunity and eat the fruit. The original sin has the character of excessive, unnecessary consumption. The living conditions in paradise were complete, and yet everything God had given the two wasn't enough. In this sense, greed isn't just at the birthplace of theoretical economics, but also at the beginning of our history. Greed is the beginning of everything."
And this legend is repeated in other mythologies such as the Greek Pandora, who opens her jar out of curiosity, thereby releasing poverty, hunger and disease into the world. In Babylonian culture, the Gilgamesh epic shows how desire rips man out of the harmony of nature.
The saturation point, like the end of history, is never achieved. Consumption works like a drug. Enough is always just beyond the horizon. The Marxist philosopher Slavoj