People are naturally interested in justice, fair play, empathy, altruism, reciprocity and many other aspects. A method of measuring the degree to which these concepts are applied in an economic and political system would be both interesting and potentially instructive. Any economic and political system is a complex interplay of an enormous number of factors and interrelationships, but the end result of all those interactions defines for any individual within the system, how fairly the resources are distributed and in what way society provides for efficient and humane (or not) convenience and safety nets. We can judge economic systems according to the way they operate with regard to individuals and communities on all the basics of natural justice. For example fair play implies that when people exchange things, they generally assume there should be a high degree of similarity in the total value each has received. We are all familiar with comparing the relative cost of purchasing something ready-made to the cost of time and materials involved to make it ourselves. We also expect to be paid a fair wage for work we undertake for someone else. We also know that this is not very often a truly “fair” exchange. Of course, we are all familiar with the idea of helping out someone who needs a temporary helping hand. This might be a neighbour who asks to borrow a cup of sugar, or it might be a donation to a worthy cause. These empathetic motives are common to us all, but are often differently developed or contextually important. For example, I might be in favour of giving to a women’s shelter in favour of abortion, whereas another person might not be in favour of helping such an organization, even though in each case the women are in trouble and need help.
One can imagine an economic system in which essentially all services are provided free from a central governing body. One can also imagine a system where no central services are provided, so that personal protection from harm, disease, finding transportation, having a means of communication, etc. are all available only by doing it yourself or by purchasing it, assuming it exists in a non-centralized system, and that you have the where-with-all needed to purchase it. The motivations for having any central service can be placed into at least two different categories. On the one hand it is more efficient to combine scattered similar services into one location. It is also more likely that in a central unit, a large number of specialists will develop more skills and techniques to add to general knowledge. Central units reduce the time required by individuals to prepare and maintain the individual capacity to do everything. On the other hand, central systems can be developed with a different mission; a mission of altruism where the governing body intends to make sure everyone has access to medical care, food, clothing, housing, clothing, useful tasks, and meaningful communications.
The development of central systems however, presupposes the existence of at least some measure of community living has developed beyond an immediate family. To maintain individuals, communities, states or an entire world of society, people need to work to provide the essentials for and to protect themselves. Not all work is considered of equal value even if it is of equal physical effort. Instead, value is usually intuitively assessed according to skills or knowledge required, the degree to which decisions are needed, and the ultimate consequences of those decisions (risk to the community). The arrival of a system in which people could accumulate wealth that was not simply an accretion of actual things or human labour (money, capital in the form of investments, and other value proxies) meant that the intuitive sense of the value of work performed and the accumulation of wealth were no longer strictly related.
Although people can philosophically tolerate a fairly wide disparity between wealth accumulated and the value of work performed, there are limits, especially if many or most people in the society find themselves unable to provide for and protect themselves or their family. In general people also feel a degree of empathy for their fellow human beings, so that if someone is in trouble, there is a tendency to feel that they should be protected and cared for until they can get back on their feet. At the same time there is also a sense of outrage at people who accumulate wealth through “unfair” means ranging from outright theft or fraud to subtle manipulation of a system that exploits others in their favour. While it may be unrealistically charitable to expect every person to have the ability to feel empathy, or a sense of fair play, or even altruism, it is likely that most can at least recognize these feelings. An individual will have their own levels of empathy towards others based on a wide array of factors from genetic to experiential. This feeling becomes part of their basic philosophical foundation.
It is possible to conceive of an individual who has no sense of empathy, natural justice, fairness, or altruism. The same is also potentially true for a societal system or an economic system, where the individual, state, or corporation feels no responsibility or feeling whatsoever for the health or well-being of another individual, state, or corporation. For the purposes of allowing us to measure these, let’s call that point zero. However unlikely, it is also possible to conceive of an individual who would always feel empathy, and altruism toward another. In a situation where they are bargaining for a product that individual would always strive to be fair in the exchange.
On one level people have a philosophical or feeling for what is right and fair, but on another level, both they and the society within which they live expresses that basic philosophical foundation in its actions and behaviour. In each case we can create a scale from 0% to 100% belief, and 0% to 100% action based on that belief.
A graph of the relationship between the philosophical position and its behavioural expression in society will allow us to measure the degree to which any political/economic system demonstrates the qualities of a fair, just, empathetic, and altruistic society. A line at 45 degrees on the graph will demonstrate where the exact degree of the philosophical position of the individual or state is reflected in the behavioural aspects seen in society. A point off that diagonal illustrates a position inconsistent between philosophy and action. That is the philosophical position is different from what the individual state or corporation actually does in real life.
We can examine these two variables at the same time. But instead of using these actual variables let’s substitute actual societal variables that can be observed and measured directly.
For example, the degree of care for people in the system can be measured by the degree to which services are provided without user fees so that at one extreme everyone has access to those services, regardless of who they are or what place they have in society. At the other extreme, no services are provided so everyone must fend for themselves for all aspects of life.
To reflect the egalitarian nature of the system, we might choose to examine the degree of central control of the economy and wealth. In this way, the two variables are parallel but not dependent – both having to do with the centrality of the system. In the graph,
I have illustrated the levels from 0% to 100% on each axis by suggesting no control and no provision of services is the origin of the two axes and the 100% point on each axis is either the total control of the system by one person or one entity, and on the other axis all services are provided without needing to pay for them through user fees, so that the services are freely available to all. I also placed circles on the graph to illustrate the effects of the extremes and medians of these two interacting variables.
At the zero point, people are very much on their own in a do-it-yourself (DIY) survival mode with essentially nothing but family and personal resources to survive on. At the extreme of the Y axis where one person has all the wealth and provides no services, slavery exists. In a real world situation, the slaves would not likely last long, but such situations are known from human society where people are used until they drop and then replaced with others captured from nearby areas. At the extreme of the X axis, where no entity sets the rules, or controls the economy, rather everyone contributes in some way to ensure everyone in the system is provided for in every necessary manner. Who knows if this extreme actually exists in reality, but it could, and my observations in Fiji suggest how it might have been possible in extended families and communicating communities. Regardless how unlikely the extremes are, the measurement is now quite possible.
By examining the X direction at different levels of central control, we can also define political styles. At the top dictatorial regimes range from barbaric to benign. In the mid-levels, democratic regimes also range from highly exploitative resulting in poverty to very nurturing and caring where much of the necessities of life are provided, although not everything is provided, while the centrality of control is primarily through regulation rather than planning. Finally at the lowest level, it is largely a survival mode with one extreme being strictly individual or family survival and at the other it is chaotic but with everyone helping everyone else.
In the next graph I have shaded in red the areas where I personally would not want to live and in green where it would be acceptable for comfortable living from the perspective of being fairly confident that if I were in trouble, a safety-net system would be available, and in normal everyday life, I would not constantly be struggling to find protection having to scramble to provide for my family.
I also added a third zone which is characterized as optimal. In this zone there is more personal choice than in the dictatorial regime and there is a better system to hold the government accountable through voting. The concept of all services provided with no user fees means everyone is provided for and protected regardless of their wealth. In a science fiction utopia, one can conceive of a system in which social and political status is not measured by accumulated wealth, but by cultural values and recognition of achievement in a recognized field contribution to society.
It is very tempting to begin to place existing countries or states, or societies on this graph. It is actually surprisingly easy to do, if only by approximation. It is also possible to intuitively see where the ideologies of modern-day politics and economies are driving the world.
Unlike natural systems which have no central planning or management, an economic system can have, but does not need to have, an overlay of control imposed on it.
The concept of a free market is often referred to as similar to a natural system in which the only force is that of selecting the individuals that are adapted to the environment in which they find themselves. In a competitive sense, if there are two individuals competing for the same set of resources, the best adapted will, in the long run, predominate. The parallel to nature is the idea that by virtue of the forces of competition, the corporations will improve their production and profits. In fact, of course, they often fail or improve their adaptive fitness, which is not necessarily the same as production and profit.
The concept of a controlled “natural” system is akin to a farm in which the organisms grow on their own but are allocated space and assigned expected production levels. Natural competition is reduced by eliminating the competitive, predatory, and parasitic or disease organisms from the system and restricting the crops to those animals or plants desired. Any individual animal or plant not living up to the expected production levels is exchanged for a different variety. This is a form of controlled genetic selection.
The concept of a controlled economic system is similar to a farm in which the businesses are allowed to operate on their own, but are given quotas. Competitive products are eliminated. There are no predatory (acquisition or vulture investors) or parasitic (borrowing and loaning institutions) economic players allowed in the system. Instead only products that are desired in the system are planned for production. Any individual “company” not living up to the expected production levels is modified or has a new management imposed. This is a form of controlled production improvement.
In a modern world, the people who fuel all these various economic models need to have food, warmth, shelter, medical systems, transportation systems, communication systems, education systems, and a host of other common services. Because people are not automatons, they also require a degree of free time to sleep, have families, socialize, and unwind from work pressures. Because people are intelligent, they also understand the concept of choice in many aspects of life ranging from food likes and dislikes, to choices of mates, setting personal priorities, and acquiring moral or behavioural values from life experiences.
By using the two main variables of belief vs action and then restricting the comfort zone by asking where within the comfort zone would the optimal zone be to add personal choice to the mix, we arrive at a fairly small window of best places to live. Try your hand at placing the countries that you know about and see how many, if any, fall into the optimal zone.