Vol.2 No.31, 05 November 2002

Economics Maketh Mankind

Margaret Legum

Economists are inclined to step aside from the moral or humanitarian implications of the policies they advocate. Like the physicists who invented the nuclear bomb, they tend to wash their hands of the consequences of their discipline.

But economics profoundly effects the character of a society and the people living there. The economic system is about power relationships in society. It influences the way people think and behave towards each other, their aspirations and their values. The morality of a society - the human and spiritual relationships between people - cannot be separated from economic imperatives.

Market domination based on international competition has a number of effects on the human psyche. World-wide it has vastly widened the income gap and destroyed the sense of human solidarity. Alongside huge wealth live excluded people who have failed to compete successfully. People living with failure, poverty and insecurity do not make happy families in which children are cherished and supported. Parents worried about survival are inclined to quarrel; families break up; the weakest are exposed to abuse. Children growing up with anxiety, violent adults and physical deprivation are stunted in their emotional and physical growth. They tend not to be tolerant, peaceable, loving, altruistic human beings, but defensive, angry, fearful or passive toadies.

Such families are often the seedbeds of delinquency, crime and madness. All of these are growing like cancers everywhere. Mental illness is highest in the US, the home of the worship of competitiveness. Suicide is rife in all 'advanced' countries, according to which criterion South Africa is advancing fast.

Not only very poor families experience financial insecurity. World-wide, few middle and professional class people feel in control of their livelihoods. You can have a good job today and tomorrow something happens at the other end of the world that shatters your prospects. The fate of the factory worker or labourer is even worse: their employers guard against unexpected blows by putting everyone on short contracts. It's called 'flexible' labour; and it has profound effects on family life everywhere. The character of the homes in which children are raised determines the character of adults.

Income inequality also produces a profound sense of injustice. That is the cause of the urban terrorism that threatens every one of us, rich and poor. People want control over their lives; and if they do not have access to justice, they think they have nothing left to lose. Suicide by killing others is the obvious answer. Street violence is inevitable where governments fail to protect vulnerable people from ravage by impersonal economic forces. Mad snipers, serial killers and random shooters, apparently 'motiveless', are the understandable outcome of an abused childhood and a sense of societal injustice - outcomes of the economic system.

Where material consumption is the sign of success, personal greed becomes the driving force. Evidence produced at one of the fraud cases in the US gives a terrifying picture of life in the jungle at the top. Personal integrity has no chance against the requirement to obey, flatter, cheat, destroy colleagues and toady for advancement. The stakes are high: galactic incomes or the sack at a moment's notice. How do these people go home to families where love, trust and mutuality of care are expected - and to Church on Sundays where personal morality is preached?

The commercialisation of public life, another aspect of market domination, eats into public morality. The upcoming ANC Conference will not be the first gathering of powerful politicians to charge for access to its halls. It is everywhere in vogue. Democratically elected governments in Europe and America hold exclusive functions to which rich people - lobbies for their own interests - can buy access. Few seem to think there is anything wrong with it.

Business interests are infiltrating public bodies like schools and universities with official approval. Coca-Cola, for one, sponsors schools in America: a child at Green Briar High School in Georgia was suspended for appearing with a Pepsi Logo T-shirt. Corporations routinely fund scientific research, having an interest in its outcome. Sweet and Low sponsored a study exonerating saccharin as a safe sweetener. Nottingham University's Centre for Corporate Social Responsibility is funded by British American Tobacco. Virtually all University departments are required to get sponsorship for their programmes - and who has the money but big business.

Commercialisation of the news media is the most dangerous in the long run. Businesses like investment houses think it's fine to sponsor news programmes about business and economic matters. Worse still, commercial messages may be given out by the newscasters themselves. Where is the distinction between advertising and news?

The end result may be experienced in the US, where commercials dominate, and programmes are identical pap, hardly distinguishable from the advertisements, appealing to the widest audience. The outcome is a profoundly ill-educated population, lulled into unthinking acceptance of consumerism and greed, unaware of anything critical of those values, brainwashed by the elision of advertising and reporting.

So people are affected profoundly by the economic system. Kibbutzniks have a different world-view from New Yorkers; welfare-state nurtured Swedes did not see life like Singaporeans. Tibetans' traditional philosophy has little in common with Britons'. It is not about genes, but about their economy. The current dominance of international competitiveness is producing a uniform tooth-and-claw callousness and a destruction of community values. The economic system is changing the expression of human nature.

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