Pure Forms: Value Systems

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When we stand well back and look at the entirety of human society, we can see that it acts a lot like any other living organism. It eats, excretes, moves, reproduces, and modifies its environment. The first way that we’re going to understand the life of this organism is to categorize its two main survival mechanisms, which are 1) the way it takes in and 2) the way it puts out.

In order to understand how we as individuals contribute, we’ll need to map these two different functions as two fundamental value systems. Value systems, as understood in the Hegelian sense, are the thoughts, intentions and passions that underlie our beliefs, precede and motivate our actions, and above which we all operate. These main two are: 1) some people value wealth – they desire to consume, experience the environment, and change ourselves (manifested as capitalism and money); and 2) some people value power – they ). It’s important to distinguish that wealth and power are at their core values and drives, not tangible objects – there’s no such thing as “it is wealth” or “it is power”; because power and wealth are properties that we’ve given things, not the things themselves.

Still, when it comes to such value systems as wealth and power, we can become like fish in water, tossed about by the currents. We have no hope of discerning our direction until we can conceptualize how the two relate. In order to deal authentically with this reality, we first have to accept the roles of wealth and power and face them courageously. To disregard their deep penetration into all facets of our lives is to turn our backs on our responsibility to each other and ourselves. As the saying about power goes, “You might not be interested in politics, but politics is very interested in you,” and the exact same can be said about wealth and the economy.

A man that is born falls into a dream like a man who falls into the sea. If he tries to climb out into the air, as inexperienced people endeavor to do, he drowns.

Joseph Conrad

So with these two distinctions in mind, and some courage, we should be able to see that the way we all contribute to the direction our society takes and the fate of this organism is largely based on how we all come to terms within these value arrangements. Other than these two functions, there’s really not much left over to worry too much about. (There are subordinate value systems, like faith-based dogmas, asceticism, estheticism, superstition, moderation and excess, but we’re sticking to the two main ones in this book.)

Wealth is the mechanism that facilitates our taking in from the environment and each other, power the way we respond and give back. Wealth seeks an internal change; power seeks to engage (or limit) external change. Wealth is fed by our whims, power by responsibilities. Wealth facilitates consumption; power regulates production. Wealth is utilized, power expressed. Wealth invites the realizations that come from experience; power applies that knowledge in the contemplation of action. Wealth is based on reacting; power on reasoning. Wealth encourages; power orders. Wealth allows for insulation from society and our environment; power provides participation. Wealth is like backing away from the environment and society, power stepping forward into it. Wealth pulls; power pushes.

In general terms, power enables us (and collectively as an organism) to control our environment and to exercise our will upon it (and other people), while wealth enables us (and as an organism) to protect ourselves with lots of “stuff” so that we can survive the harsh realities the environment throws upon us.

The first hurdle we’ll need to get over is to understand that, as value systems, both wealth and power have distinct goals and each is as valid as the other. There’s nothing so terrible about seeing the environment and society suspiciously as a hostile place and being a bit selfish, nor is there anything so astounding about renouncing comfort to be a little altruistic – it’s only when we push either of these two to absolute extremes that we show our ignorance and cease to appreciate how life’s purpose resembles different things at different times to different people. There is no overriding logic which determines that one should triumph over the other –  in fact, they need each other to survive. It is no more moral to want wealth than to want power, and vice-versa; and just because someone wants wealth or power at some time or another doesn’t mean that person is bad.

The ultimate goal of pure power in society is to regulate citizens’ behavior in the least intrusive way in order to ensure the most freedoms for everyone, while the ultimate goal of pure wealth is to spur the market to produce lots of new and useful things and always in better and more efficient ways.

Please remember, we’re still talking about pure forms here, not the real world. Yes, we know that many people spend money in order to get other people to do, or not do, things for them, and others exercise power in order to gain wealth – but this is not pure forms talk; it is corruption talk, which we’ll look at later. In theory, when kept separate, wealth and power work harmoniously and allow for maximum prosperity and contribution within society. Put into place, each value system manifests in personal devices and social institutions: Wealth uses money to decide how we will take in; power uses votes to choose how we give back. Wealth’s expression is in our capitalistic system, power’s in our democratic system.

Pure Forms Value Systems

Capitalism and Democracy serve very different, but interacting, roles in our society’s growth.

Also, another very important point that’s implied, but not stated, throughout this book is: We’re going to take for granted that everyone is productive and everyone is consumptive. Every single one of us shares these value systems; even a monk holed up in a remote cave interacts in these ways to some degree. There is no one who doesn’t want to know / experience the world and no one who doesn’t want to be known / experienced by the world. It’s going to be crucial to agree on this, as it implies that the role of power is not to stimulate consumption, nor is the role of wealth to dictate behavior. We don’t need to have the markets telling government what to do, and we don’t need the governments busying themselves messing around with the affairs of the marketplace unless it’s for the protection of the people. It’s pure folly (and dangerous) for economists to diminish the role of governments, and the same goes for governments that try to take over the marketplace. Although they both work in relation to each other, internally they should both function independently. They each have their own very important work to do, and neither is responsible for the other’s job.

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