The Reverse Metamorphsis of Sustainability: Economy

William H. Young

This is the third commentary in support of Stephen Balch’s thoughtful article on why colleges and universities should once more offer courses on Western civilization. Dr. Balch highlights the metamorphosis in human knowledge and achievement that occurred uniquely in the West over the past three hundred years. The sustainability ideology proposes a “reverse metamorphosis,” to turn America and the world back to pre-modern ideas about science, nature, the economy, and governance. I address the economy herein.

The ancient Greeks and Romans, with labor carried out largely by slaves, sought to create a prosperous middle class; but the economic growth required was not achieved. Christianity first imbued human labor with dignity, and in the High Middle Ages monasteries led the introduction of mechanical technology to reduce the use of slavery. The concepts of work, property, covenants, progress, and hope for the future ordained by Christian doctrine gradually became the basis for Western economies, beginning (where liberty existed) in thirteenth-century Italy, proceeding to Holland, perfected in Britain with the Industrial Revolution, and later best fulfilled in America. The standard of living of the common man, now just assumed as a birthright, began to improve only in the nineteenth-century West—for the first time in human history. This Western metamorphosis was based on the confluence of property rights, scientific rationalism, capital markets, transportation, and communications.

In another metamorphic event and historic first, America was founded as a commercial republic to provide—following Adam Smith—for private pursuit by individuals of ambition, self-interest, and prosperity through a market (reciprocal exchange) system utilizing private property and capitalism. Smith recognized that an economy should be shaped by the nature of man, which was properly perceived by Western wisdom. The founders realized that the pursuit of material well-being through individual work and performance based on reciprocity in the private sector contributes to the welfare of society—both in the sense of creating personal fulfillment and wealth and the social unity engendered by commerce. They also understood that unequal faculties and competitiveness are part of human nature and sought to transcend the history of failures of past republics—because of envy, class warfare, and economic conflict over scarcity—by turning to multiple productive hierarchies within the private sector to satisfy human needs for dominance and esteem.

Based upon a false conception of the state of nature and the rejection of capitalism—drilled into students from public schooling through college—the sustainability ideology seeks to reverse the metamorphosis of the Industrial Revolution and Western economic systems through the concept of “sustainable development.” A previous article noted that the founder of ecological economics, Herman Daly, defines sustainable development as what John Stuart Mill called the “stationary state,” a steady-state economy of zero growth. Daly indicated how such an economy would work: “By population control, by redistribution of wealth and income, and by technical improvements in resource productivity. In sum, not by growth, but by development.”

In an article in Solutions Daly further explains that a steady-state economy adds natural capital to land, labor, and financial capital and would “sustain a constant, sufficient stock of real wealth and people for a long time” by “reducing current consumption.” He calls for the following kinds of economic changes

Government would establish quotas and ration the depletion of natural resources, controlling their pricing and use by the private sector and the amount of pollution generated—making markets work. All banks would have a 100% reserve requirement. This would put control of the money supply and seigniorage in the hands of government rather than private banks.

Private property loses its legitimacy if too unequally distributed. Unlimited inequality is unfair. So we need to seek fair limits to the range of inequality, a minimum income and a maximum income. Government would set such limits; the difference between the highest and lowest incomes would be more like that of government rather than private sector employees. Further, wages established for workers would be on a worldwide rather than national basis. “We cannot integrate with the global economy and at the same time have higher wages, environmental standards, and social safety nets than the rest of the world.”

Full-time external employment is hard to provide without growth. Under industrialism, the length of the working day became a parameter rather than a variable (and for Karl Marx was the key determinant of the rate of exploitation).  Thus workers would choose the length of their working day, week, and year and be free to “maximize enjoyment of life.

The sustainability ideology—based on a utopian egalitarian vision of our academic and college-educated elites–would reverse the metamorphosis that Dr. Balch observes, the unique betterment of the common man achieved by Western economic systems only over the past two centuries. NAS has shown that “there’s a lot more to sustainability than the environment.” The above examples should make clear that the inclusion of social equity or social justice in that ideology merely serves as another vehicle for advancing even beyond the goals of collectivist progressivism—to forms of socialism or communism.

Our people are currently suffering the misery and anxieties of a low-growth economy and unemployment due to lack of private sector job creation. One can imagine the angst that would be created by zero-growth sustainable development and the conflicts that would arise over scarcity. And perhaps our elites will come to recognize the wisdom of that contemporary sage, Pogo, who said “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

It seems clear that those elites lack adequate knowledge of Western civilization and the sound thinking underlying its prosperity. Our universities need to return to teaching the history of Western civilization about the capitalist economic system, its application in America, and the manifold benefits of economic growth, properly conducted so as to include stewardship of nature.                                                                      _____________________________________________________________________________________

The Honorable William H. Young was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to be Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy and served in that position from November 1989 to January 1993. He is the author of OrderingAmerica: Fulfilling the Ideals of Western Civilization (2010) and Centering America: Resurrecting the Local Progressive Ideal (2002).



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