In one of my most interesting classes last semester, I learned very little in the traditional academic sense, but did learn quite a bit in real-life practice about confusion and frustration management. The class was Issues in Modern America, and the professor a nuclear physicist who worked on the Iranian nuclear program in the ’80s, graduated from MIT in the 90’s, the University of Ohio in the ’00s, and came to Bluffton in order to study the Sermon on the Mount and its application to economic theory and human survival over the next ice-age which will be brought on sometime in the next 15,000 years by a global transition from the blue-skied, to canopied-earth model. I wish I was making this up.
We spent more than half the time in the class in discussion groups, usually with less than half of us having more than half of an idea of what we were supposed to be discussing. It’s true that we did not discuss issues in modern America, but we did at least cover extensively and over several class periods what it means to be poor in spirit and why the pizza delivery guy may have been late with your order. I wish I was making this up.
Two redeeming parts to the class were the course-work, and a wonderfully comprehensive book written by a British economist Bill Jordan in the ’80s A Theory of Poverty and Social Exclusion which thoroughly examines cultural, political, sociological, and even philosophical and religious issues which factor in contributing both to poverty and its alleviation. What I did make up is my own theoretical attempt to economically justify my personal beliefs on the ideal relationship to money in my contemporary cultural context. I found some of my best sources in Jordan’s bibliography, and other incredible resources at the simply fantastic blogsite Simplicity Collective. The following is an excerpt and abbreviation of my term paper written for Issues in Modern America.
In recent decades wages across a broad range of occupations in America have stagnated, with the bottom end of wages exhibiting the least growth. If the federal minimum wage had kept up with actual productivity after 1970 as it had roughly done so previously, it would have been at $18.42 per hour in 2014 rather than the $7.25 per hour it was then and still is today (Bivens, Gould, Mishel, 2015). Similarly, the wealth gap in America has dramatically expanded in the last decades, with the wealthiest one percent of Americans now owning approximately forty-two percent of the wealth, or more than the collective wealth of the bottom ninety percent combined (Wolf, 2010). The top one percent of households in 2015 took home twenty-four percent of the year’s income, while the bottom twenty percent took home only four percent of the year’s income (Congressional Budget Office 2018).
Most of the wealth gap in post-industrial societies can be understood in terms of enforced exclusion from wage earning, profits, and developmental profit. However, not all forms of exclusion can be explained by limit at point of access. In their 2015 paper “Are you really Financially Excluded if you Choose not to be Included” authors have argued that access point definitions of financial exclusions are not adequate for determining financial exclusions since some non-participance in high/middle income brackets and certain financial services may be volitional rather than necessitated by circumstance. Their paper sought to apply approaches used in definitions of social exclusions to determine better definitions of financial exclusion differentiating between enforced exclusion and voluntary self-exclusion (Salignac, et al. 2015).
In view of the incredible wealth inequalities in economies such as America’s, why on earth would anyone choose to exclude themselves from market opportunities that are available to them? To understand categories of behavior, it is important to not only draw distinctions between groups who experience enforced exclusion and groups who exhibit self-exclusion, but also to draw distinctions between non-participants who self-exclude because of perceived personal lack and non-participants who self-exclude due to perceived personal sufficiency. Previous authors have pointed to this distinction especially regarding social exclusions via self-stereotyping, self-censorship, and label-internalizations (Hoff, Walsh, 2017) In terms of differing behavior toward markets, some groups may self-exclude from access points such as credit, investment, or transaction accounts because they don’t feel that they have the ability to navigate such access points profitably, whereas other groups may self-exclude from access points because they experience contentment and are uninterested in the abilities these access points may provide. Considering market non-participants who self-exclude for reasons informed by perceived sufficiency, what are the motivations for such groups and such actions?
Voluntary self-exclusion from financial access to market resources has been characterized in a growing body of literature as “voluntary simplicity” sometimes simply abbreviated to “VS” (Alexander, 2012; Walther, 2016; etc.) Groups that exercise voluntary self-exclusion may do so for reasons of morality (Alexander, 2018), faith and religiosity (Abou-Zaid, 2014), life-style preference and well-being (Walther, 2016), or in order to engage in non-remunerative capability-sharing such as volunteer services (Le Guidec, 1996), or political action whether for societal VS advancement or some other compatible end (Alexander, 2012).
Despite an increasing wealth gap, stagnating wages, and pressured middle-class, there are people variously affected by these trends who are voluntarily choosing less out of a framework informed by perception of sufficiency. It is true that exorbitant amounts of wealth are being accumulated by the top percentages of earners in post-industrialized economies, but it is also true that with a little deviance from accepted patterns of maximizing consumption to meet or exceed means, wage earners in much lower percentiles can reduce their market participation and still survive with remarkable sufficiency. The possibility arises from conditions of abundance brought on by market capitalism, and can be experienced by individuals who have and recognize the opportunity to earn more than they need to acquire the basic material necessities of life. The condition of abundance allows the freedom of self-determined standards of living and reflective self-direction of personal capability sharing.
Values of simple living are by no means new but have been passed down from many wisdom traditions both recent and ancient. Teachers such as Lao Tzu, Buddha, Diogenes, Jesus, St. Francis, John Ruskin, William Morris, Thoreau, Tolstoy, and Gandhi have lived out and taught the virtues of contentment and material moderation across centuries. The conditions made possible by our current economic situation, however, can allow lifestyles of voluntary simplicity very different from the self-denying asceticism which we might get the picture of as practiced by voluntary simplifiers in previous historical periods. Moderate restraint of spending practices while maintaining full employment, reducing hours worked while still enjoying discretionary consumption, or more likely some combination of both are the primary ways in which individuals in economies of abundance can choose to practice voluntary simplicity. Productivity per hour worked has gone up in the American economy as evidenced by rising GDP per-capita. Rising productivity has lead to predictions of corresponding increases in leisure time by optimistic theorists such as Robert Theobald who in 1961 advocated for education reforms which would prepare children for the enjoyment of the twenty-hour work he expected would typical within a generation (Theobald, 1961). Increase in productivity though has not directly corresponded with a decrease of typical hours worked, however, at least partially because unnecessary levels of both consumption and waste have risen along with productivity.
Economic principles aside, ecological concerns pose a very compelling argument for reducing consumption. Current levels and methods of production and consumption threaten the natural world around us through climate changes and pollution. Members of some societies vastly over-consume, while members of other societies experience significant lack. Recent analysts have estimated that if earth’s entire 7.7 billion population consumed resources at the levels which Americans do, it would require roughly four earths to support the production and sustainability assimilate the waste (McDonald, 2015). Not only are members of wealthier societies disproportionately responsible for the overconsumption which damages the environment, they will also be less proportionately harmed by it, since they will have more recourses to protect themselves from its consequences.
Unfortunately, it is difficult for people to take personal action for problems which they share responsibility for with a group, but because we all contribute to environmental damage, we are responsible for at least our contribution to the problem even if we are not exposed to its consequences. Every time we make purchases, we are voting for the types of products we want to be produced, and the type of world that we will live in. Every consumable product takes energy to be produced and must be eventually disposed of. Since no process is one hundred percent efficient and nothing that is disposed of ever really goes away but must be either somehow contained or assimilated back into the ecosphere, all production results in wasted energy and all disposal results in damaged to the ecosphere to the extent that it cannot be re-assimilated. Voluntary simplicity can be practiced as a recognition of the fact that we live in a finite word and have personal responsibility for how our individual waste and consumption impacts the environment we exist in.
Recognizing conditions of inequality and overconsumption, voluntary simplicity becomes then for some a rationally based ethical or moral response. In a 2018 essay, authors Rupert Read and others argued that voluntary simplicity is conclusively supported by three major act-based moral-philosophical frameworks, utilitarianism, virtue ethics, and Kantian deontology. The maximum well-being for the largest number indicates over-consumption should be reduced in order to preserve the availability of resources for future generations. From an Aristotelian virtue perspective, simplicity is the golden mean between insufficiency and excess, and liberates the individual seeking his telos to determine what other virtues he should acquire. From Kant’s rational perspective of categorical imperatives, it is impossible to desire that my levels of consumption and waste become universally practiced given that such universalization would break the delimited system I practice them in.
For others, self-exclusion that is volitional rather than directly necessitated by market circumstance may be a function of adherence to a faith tradition which seeks to incorporate production and consumption within a materially transcendent and spiritually inclusive framework of human meaning. Many faiths teach against material acquisitiveness, for example, the texts of all three major monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam unanimously instruct against the financial practice of charging interest. The morality of religious injunction against usury typically gets rejected as primitive, irrelevant, and too untenable for even consideration, however, just because a system exists which opposes a moral normative does not in itself invalidate that normative, and certainly other types of systems could exist, as evidenced by a 2015 essay in which economists Leonce and Abou-Zaid point to methods of capital financing alternative to usury such mutual and equally interested partnerships as practiced by Islamic Banks, The Hebrew Free Loan Society, the Swedish JAK Medlemsbank, and other institutions (Abou-Zaid, Leonce, 2015).
The Catholic conception of work has long been not primarily as a wage-earning activity or even primarily an action ending in production, but primarily a realization of the human being made in the image of a God who creates. Writing from the perspective, Dorothy Sayers argued that valuation should not be derived from profitability, but from work itself, saying that work is not only something that one does to live but also something which on lives to do. To her, work “should be the full expression of the worker’s faculties, the thing in which he finds spiritual, mental and bodily satisfaction.” She concludes from this that the “greatest insult which the commercial age has offered to the worker has been to rob him of all interest in the end product of the work and to force him to dedicate his life to making badly things which were not worth making” (Sayers, 1948). For Sayers, an economy built on valuing profitably over capability-sharing results in an economy of over-production and over-consumption, and a “society in which consumption has to be artificially stimulated in order to keep production going is a society founded on trash and waste…a house built upon sand” (Sayers, 1948).
For others still, voluntary simplicity and market self-exclusions can be motivated simply from differing, self-interested conceptualization of what a good life entails. Some individuals and groups value lower levels of stress and higher levels of leisure and freedom over the satisfaction and status conferred by higher levels of consumption. This interest could be demonstrated by either more radical examples such as new age travelers leaving jobs and economic security for transient lifestyles, or by prefatory choices such as taking a lower paying job that requires only forty hours a week over a much higher paying one that requires fifty.
A growing awareness of conditions of abundance and a growing sense of sufficiency is evidenced by burgeoning movements which from a market perspective could be viewed as self-exclusionary. Focuses such as the Journal of Consumer Culture, and The Simplicity Collective have developed expansive analysis of the cultural downsides of over-consumption, and accessible ways forward into voluntary simplicity characterized as being more beneficial to individual and societal well-being than the excess of traditional methods of consumption. Central to these arguments is a skepticism toward market messages of ever-increasing abilities of consumption correlating to ever increasing levels of satisfaction. That life satisfaction depends much more upon relationships than consumption above levels of basic material survival is both intuitive and shown to be the case by empirical research (Reis, 1990). Voluntary simplicity is often marked by practical emphasis of investment in relationships via localization of exchanges, community, collective action, and more time made available for relationships.
If motivated by faith-based convictions, morality, or a valuation of relationships, groups that self-exclude are already likely be concerned about the conditions of those excluded by necessity, and as self-exclusion places them closer to situations which include the traditionally excluded, further possibilities of solidarity and capability sharing solutions will result. Whatever the primary reasons are for groups practicing voluntary self-exclusion out of perception of sufficiency, these groups are in an incredible position to address situations of exclusion by necessity. Those who choose to be excluded have by definition at least some of the capabilities necessary for market inclusion, and so may operate with more flexibility than if they either did not have those capabilities or had them tide up in exchange systems. Being freer from demands upon time alone allows one to focus more on providing solutions for the excluded. Some Americans are finding that they are able to provide for the lifestyles they choose by working only four days a week rather than the traditional five, and therefore have an extra day a week in which they can engage in non-remunerative capability sharing activities of their choice (Cohen, 2009).
In Associative Democracy, Paul Hirst argues that centralized, bureaucratic government provides too unaccountable and unresponsive public administration to be effective in addressing the complexity and multivalencey of social needs (Hirst, 1994). Knowledge management and capability sharing easily become diluted and lost in the impersonality and clutter of bureaucracies. Top-down, centralized approaches of addressing the conditions of the excluded are ineffective simply because empathy and pathos, prime human motivators are depleted within the non-exposed bureaucratic layers. The condition of non-exposure to the actual issues of exclusion also results in decreased abilities of knowledge-management, and higher ignorance content in the solutions and externalities produced. Self-excluded voluntary simplifiers however, have the opportunity to address the conditions of the traditionally excluded both from better positions of relationally-specific knowledge management, and from less centralized and more contextually responsive abilities of capability sharing.
Along the same lines, Douglas North points out that along with more conglomerate and aggregate operating agents such as foundations and corporations, come not only higher operating costs but also higher transactional costs, enforcement costs, and in the form of contractual safeguards (North, 1990). In North’s view, the most successful conditions of social and economic inclusion are those in which formal and informal force-extensions are set up so that they encourage the maximum volume of low transactional cost voluntary exchanges between individuals. The challenge is that not only do conditions of exclusion destabilize abilities of knowledge management and conversion of brute-force to force-extensions, they also often fail to give rise to the norms of trust, reciprocity and confidence necessary for voluntary exchange systems to advance beyond the most rudimentary transactions. Excluded populations therefore have difficulty in self-organizing groups for their own interdependent economic advancement.
Following Hirst’s and North’s analysis of resource-management and my analysis of the abilities and interests of the voluntarily self-excluded, it could become the task of more mobile and resilient middle-class voluntary exclusionaries to use their increased time for knowledge management and allocation of capability sharing to provide both formal and informal structures of exchange with lower-threshold access points which poorer populations could voluntarily interact with. More localized, inclusive and dispersed capitalism, operating on more grassroots levels could be easily facilitated by groups that elect partial dominant market exclusions, and could be more easily entered into by groups which are excluded from dominant markets by necessity. Lower-structured informal exchanges would represent less risk than large scale transactions, and hence could allow interdependency and risk sharing to be more readily entered into. Groups operating out of concepts of sufficiency and therefore already volunteering for some level of economic exclusion would be better prepared to absorb micro-losses in the form of un-enforced transaction risk, and therefore able to remain in informal exchanges with the excluded providing the stability and demonstrating the resilience necessary for norms of trust, mutual interest, and reciprocity to develop. As a cultural stock of such norms get developed within the informal exchanges of the excluded, not only would a buildup of trust-capital be generated, but also a buildup of wealth-capital from an increased volume of transactions.
Humans are more than resource takers and will not be fulfilled unless they have both resource taking opportunities and power-process opportunities of knowledge management and capability sharing (Kaczynski, 1995, Rafizadeh, 2018). Without networks of exchange to interact in, the knowledge-management and capability-sharing of the excluded are wasted to both their own loss and the loss of society around them. Relieving situations of poverty is synonymous with providing the excluded with a wider range of freedom and possibilities. Correspondingly, solutions of informal, voluntary exchange systems provide the opportunity of immediate volitional actions on the part of the excluded on their own behalf. Increasing the opportunities of capability-sharing and exchange for the excluded will enable their inclusion in abilities of social and market interaction, and contribute to individual dignity by increasing the range of available options by which they can exercise volitional, self- and societally-beneficial action.
Accordingly, a large part of addressing the situation of the excluded will be developing new networks and connections and increasing integration with existing networks and connections. Here the localized, communal, and relational values of voluntary simplicity become important. Bill Jordan defines community as activity of voluntary members who “regulate each other’s actions by reinforcing norms of social obligation and offer mutual support and assistance on a reciprocal basis” (Jordan, 1996). Because their exchanges are mutual and reciprocal usually entailing no transaction and enforcement costs, communal arrangements are extraordinarily efficient and allow consistent, sustainable growth even if there are only low-volumes of wealth to be exchanged. Sustainable growth is slow growth.
Integration and creation of new networks can be accomplished by offering small, no-interest or low interest loans to the excluded. These loans could be used to build small business or strategically improve living conditions in order to gain better access to systems of exchange. Self-excluding individuals could join those excluded by necessity in working to develop more integrated communities where more opportunities for working, living, and shopping exist within walking distance of each other in order to reduce commuter costs. Those who self-exclude by choice have backgrounds of more inclusion, and therefore have more trust-capital with those of traditional, dominant market inclusion. They could use this trust-capital along with their increased availability of time for capability sharing and knowledge management to connect labor markets of the included with labor resources of the excluded.
Existing exchange networks of the excluded could be strengthened directly by the voluntarily self-excluding investing by purchase in small and struggling businesses, voting with their money that they want the livelihoods of the excluded to survive, rather than the monopolies of the elite to become stronger. Networking is perhaps one of the most important services to be provided for the excluded, since the possibilities of capability sharing in relationships exterior to the one making the connection are usually more extensive and diversified than ones that he himself could provide. Bill Jordan notes that professionals and public agencies can provide better services by connecting the excluded with already existent communities and infrastructural resources rather than attempting to independently engineer comprehensive solutions to every individual need (Jordan, 1996). Resources such as job markets, labor supply, business ventures, informal exchanges, union organization, ethnic, regional, and faith communities should be brought together around and among the excluded to interact with each other and benefit from mutual capability sharing.
The approaches offered in this analysis would take a long time to develop and gain effect, even if immediately adopted by those who practice voluntary self-exclusion. However, given the values, interests, and abilities of the voluntarily self-excluded, it would seem that they are more likely than the traditionally included to adopt these approaches, and have more flexible and immediate ability to do so incarnationally, not only because they understand better the positions of the excluded, but also because they are less hindered by investment in the interests of the included. Wherever the voluntarily excluded do succeed in developing sustainable formal and informal exchange systems among the excluded, however, such developments are likely to have long-lasting effects. When grass-roots networks of knowledge management, and capability sharing do develop, the sustainable wealth and trust capital that gets generated continues to strengthen the system and systems around it. Robert Putnam notes that the current areas best socio-economically off tend to be the same ones where cooperatives and mutual-aid cultural associations were most prevalent in the nineteenth century, and these were in turn most likely to be located in areas where neighborhood and economic associations such as guilds, and infrastructural religious communities and work collectives most flourished in the centuries previous (Putnam, 1993).
In conclusion, the position taken in this essay is that voluntary simplicity from a market perspective is a form of self-exclusion, and from an analytical perspective is motivated by a perception of sufficiency at levels of consumption below those which conditions of relative abundance could allow. Further, those included in this definition of voluntary simplicity are likely to be more immediately interested and able to relationally and sustainably address the situations of those excluded by necessity. Since this is a grassroots approach to the situation of excluded relying primarily on voluntary relational exchanges rather than being dependent on system-based, top down force-extensions, it is a few-agree position that does not need to ascend to a many-agree position before it can start functioning, but can instead strengthen few-agree positions compatible with it and form many-agree positions within the specific, localized situations it works itself out.
Works Cited and Bibliography:
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