Central to the message of Islam is the need to focus on goals of Akhira, instead of goals of Dunya. Economic theory is directly opposed to this message, since it teaches us that the purpose of life is to maximize consumption in this world, and furthermore, all human beings actually act in this way. My lecture below discusses the problems created by this assumption, which does not hold for actual human behavior, and is extremely noxious as a normative principle. [Shortlink: bit.do/azrdp]
1000 Word Summary of Lecture: Quest for Prosperity: Culture & Economy
The main thesis of our lecture is that our quest for prosperity has failed to deliver the sought-after goals because we have misunderstood the meaning of prosperity , and looked for it where it cannot be found. We base our economic policies on modern economic theory, which is based on the amazing assumption that human beings act to maximize lifetime consumption, since this is the sole source of human welfare. Human beings are far more generous and cooperative than the assumptions of economic theory allow for. Even more important is Richard Easterlin’s discovery that enormously increased levels of consumption do not bring about corresponding increases in happiness. Consumption only brings short-run happiness; long-run happiness has no correlation with consumption, and is far better correlated with character traits like generosity and gratitude. Mindless pursuit of wealth, implemented by policies to maximize growth, has led to increasing misery, instead of prosperity . Growth-oriented policies have destroyed family lives, engaging all members in production of wealth, and they have damaged our environment, destroying the future of our species for short run gains. Can this damage be reversed? Can we improve human lives and welfare, and also stave off the impending environmental crisis? At the core of the crisis we face is the prioritization of wealth over human beings. A market economy cheapens human beings because it is based on the idea that human lives are commodities for sale in the labor market. Reversing these priorities requires the recognition that all human lives are infinitely precious, with amazing potentials and capabilities for growth in dimensions unknown. Taking this principle seriously would require re-writing all economics textbooks, and radically re-organizing our economic, political and social institutions. Taking collective responsibility to ensure that all members of a society get the chance to develop their capabilities would be a new definition of prosperity , very different from GNP per capita, which is the current focus of policy makers across the globe.
Modern economic theory makes accumulation of wealth the goal of economic activity, and values human lives only to the extent that they contribute to production. How can we reverse these priorities, putting the enrichment and empowerment of human lives at the center, and valuing wealth only to the extent that it is helpful in achieving this goal? The first requirement is to win the battle of ideas, creating consensus on the prioritization of human beings over material wealth. To do this, we need to recognize modern economic theory for what it is, instead of what it claims to be. To accomplish this goal, it is useful to label modern economic theory as Economic Theory of the Top 1% — or ET1% — and explain how all aspects of this theory are designed to portray increasing wealth of the top 1% as the goal of society, and also to show that this serves to benefit the entire society. For example, use of GNP per capita as a yardstick of social welfare exactly fits this description, since gains to the top 1% are first divided over the entire population and then measured, thus appearing to be generally beneficial, when in fact they are not. Overcoming this deception will involve replacing ET1% by ET90% — a new economic theory for the bottom 90%.
Karl Marx clearly recognized the deceptive nature of economic theory, and stated that functioning of capitalism requires convincing the laborers of the necessity and fairness of their own exploitation. ET1% does this by arguing the growth is the best policy to pursue for all, since benefits which obviously accrue to the rich will eventually trickle down to the poor. In contrast, Marx offered us ET90% by asking for a shift from each according to his abilities (to gather wealth) to “each according to his needs”, thereby prioritizing the needs of the poor over growth to provide more wealth to the already wealthy.
As a prescription for change, Marx urged the laborers of the bottom 90% to unite, and throw off their chains. Experience shows that we can successfully unite laborers to revolt against the capitalists, but after the revolution, control necessarily remains in the hand of a small minority. The nature of power is such that this small minority is likely to be corrupted by it, and use it for personal gains, and to oppress the majority. Just like democracy has failed to give ‘power to the people’, so alternative systems of government also fail.
The Islamic solution works along different dimensions. It seeks to co-opt the rich and powerful, instead of killing them off, and replacing by another set of rich and powerful. This is done by creating social norms of generosity and social responsibility. Fourteen centuries ago, the revolutionary teachings of Islam led backwards and ignorant Arabs to world leadership. These teachings include the ideas that the best leader is the servant of the people, that power is given to us in order to protect the weak, and wealth is meant to be given to the needy. Widespread acceptance of these ideas created a society which provided basic needs, health care, and education to all members using the institutions of Waqf, and the norms of collective social responsibility and brotherhood. Because these ideas have been forgotten, they continue to have the same revolutionary potential today, as they did 1400 years ago. The most important first step in this revolution is sensitizing our hearts to feel compassion for sufferings of all mankind. The feeling that all of the creation is the family of God, and service to humanity, and all living creatures, is the highest form of worship, is essential motivation for the Herculean efforts required to create revolutionary changes required to reverse the increasing concentration of wealth at the top and misery at the bottom.