Sustainable politics

As long as people agree that 1) we need air, water, food, shelter, and a few other things, all of a proper quality, stability and balance to live, and 2) it is more efficient to cooperate in managing these things than not, then: 3) people could disagree on most other things, yet still live together with mutual benefit and without conflict.

However, 1 and 2 is not sufficient for true sustainability. People can agree with 1 and 2 but still not consider consequences of their actions that only appear after their deaths. So, even if someone agreed with 1 and 2 they may not agree with 4) That it is worthwhile to leave the same system or better for those after us. It is necessary to understand that a decision must be made concerning this. What benefits oneself (increases one’s own capabilities) does not necessarily coincide with what is sustainable for society.

A free market is not necessarily efficient.

It is true that if someone can produce something or provide a service better than what is currently on the market, society should allow that someone to enter the market. If someone can make a process more efficient it is in society´s best interest to accommodate them. This is an example of positive competition. Positive competition increases the overall efficiency of the economic system.

However, not all competition is positive. There is another way to compete, and that is, instead of making oneself more efficient, making one’s competition less efficient. If I simply burn down all of my competitors buildings, my product or service will become the most value-cost competitive available. The bottom line: more revenue. However, this does not increase the efficiency of the economic system, it decreases it. So it is in society´s best interest to try to prevent this form of competition to enter the market. This is a very familiar role of government.

Though increasing positive competition and decreasing negative competition is a simple concept, it is not so easily carried out. New and creative ways to compete negatively are always being discovered, especially when the economy changes in ways difficult to understand. So, we see in the world continuously evolving legal and regulatory systems to deal with the issue, we see both successes, failures, and situations we cannot so easily evaluate.

What complicates matters further is that legal and regulatory systems themselves require resources. Not only must society evaluate what is positive and negative competition (sometimes on a case by case basis), society must evaluate whether the legal and regulatory systems it employs in the real world save more resources than they cost. A balance must be struck. We see society’s attempt to meet this balance in our everyday lives: not all criminal cases can be solved, not everything that is harmful is illegal, not all actions can be scrutinized.

This is a common theme in politics and economics: a simple concept, complications, and a balance, good or bad, dictated by the effort and understanding of the members of society.

To become sustainable, society will have to reevaluate the concept of efficiency. This should come as no surprise; the economy has changed significantly in recent generations, it is entirely possible that the concepts (which were sufficient in the past) are now no longer clear enough to resolve the new problems humanity faces.

What is sustainable? What is efficient? What benefits humanity? Where do we start?

All these questions are best grouped into one: how can we improve society? Society is made up of individuals, so it stands to reason that considering what it means for an individual to improve may give us some insight into what it may mean to improve society. When you improve, be it through gaining knowledge, skill, fitness, or acquiring resources and means, it increases your capability. You can now solve problems and accomplish things you could not before.

Improvement, social benefit, efficient economic systems, sustainability can all be evaluated with respect to capability. For instance, a new invention increases society´s capabilities and so if used responsibly, benefits society. Likewise, the free flow of knowledge, a healthier population, a good transportation system, quality education, all increase the scope of problems that society can solve and the scope of what society can accomplish, among other things, provide the basic necessities to society’s members. Increasing capabilities is a very simple concept: it means being able to do more.

However, as was warned, it is very complex to put in practice. The complication that arises is that doing anything - though it opens up new options - closes others. To increase capabilities in one way means not being able to increase capabilities in another. Whenever a person does something, that person cannot do some other things at that time or at future times, because their situation has developed differently. Whenever resources are used to do one thing, those resources are no longer available to do other things. We cannot do everything, nor change our situation at will. Options have to be weighed, choices have to made. What increases your capabilities in the short term may decrease your capabilities over a longer term.

An example is the fact that it is always cheaper not to eat today. At every moment the resources that would be used to eat can be used to do something else, opening up those options; but is not eating moment to moment sustainable? Not only do you soon become less effective, lowering your capability, in the end you die and your options are reduced to zero.

So this is the core of the sustainability issue: our current economic system gives society more options in the present, but less options in the future. It is necessary to make a choice.

To create a sustainable economy will require a large and complex social effort. However, there is precedent: the train and road system, the electric system, and the communications system were all projects using a significant portion of society´s resources especially in their beginnings.

Any candidate must be based on these two ideas: that there is a choice that must be made, and that becoming sustainable will not be easy. Or, in other words, the path of least resistance is not a sustainable one. Like falling into a whole, it is easy to slide further in and is harder to climb out. It is a simple idea, but can be complex to put into practice. However, if enough members of society make an effort, we shall keep our balance and not fall to the bottom.

Eerik Wissenz
August 2007