Compare a litre of water in the swimming pool of a rich person with a litre used for drinking or for cooking in the house of a poor person. To make things worse, the cost of a litre of water that one has to carry by hand is often higher in the slums in developing countries than a litre conveniently poured from the tap by the rich, and the quality of the water is also mostly better for the rich. So the poor are discriminated against thrice over. Isn’t this perspective in itself enough to make one argue in favour of global redistribution of resources?
An increase in the absolute income by a certain sum does a lot more good—results in more well-being—for a poor person than for a rich person. One could discuss the ‘happiness productivity’ of a certain resource, that is, how to use a resource to deliver as much happiness or satisfaction or well-being as possible.
|Diener and Seligman 2005|
There is no direct correlation between an individual’s or a country’s economic (material) wealth and their sense of happiness, satisfaction or well-being. This is an old observation. The more balanced defendants of capitalism also agree; for example, the economist Joseph A. Schumpeter says that people in industrial societies don’t have to be happier or experience more well-being than people in the Middle Ages. An American study from 2004 states that while economic wealth has increased threefold in 50 years (see figure), people’s feeling of well-being has been constant; in fact, mental health has deteriorated and social networks are weaker. Between 1958 and 1991, the average income of the Japanese increased sixfold; still, in 1991 they were as satisfied (or as little satisfied) as their parents were in 1958.
Material wealth doesn’t lead to more well-being; on the contrary, it appears that the human quest for more things is threatening not only our space on earth but, ultimately, also our own well-being. There is no reason to moralize over this; considering that scarcity has been the norm for millennia, no built-in barriers exist against over-consumption of food or things. But now the damage is evident, for the physical environment, for society as a whole and for individual human beings. Both the values that hail consumption and the economic system that is driven by this consumption and that, at the same time, amplifies consumption have to be changed. And these two are strongly linked, one feeds on the other, therefore they need to be tackled simultaneously. Inequality adds to the equation by leading to people being more frustrated than they would be in a more just society. To compensate for this frustration they consume. Not only that, inequality itself drives comparison and competition, which had growth as its main expression.
(based on Garden Earth -From Hunter and Gatherer to Global Capitalism and Thereafter, my book that will be published next week)