Friday, October 16, 2015

The Problem of Human Unsaturatedness & the Pauline Secret of Contentment

Tomas Sedlacek , in Economics of Good and Evil: The Quest for Economic Meaning from Gilgamesh to Wall Street, gives a history of economics as found in the grand stories of Western culture. He begins with the Epic of Gilgamesh to show that "economics" is not some value-neutral discipline using the "objective" tools of mathematics and science. 

The Gilgamesh story contrasts the mythical figures Gilgamesh and Enkidu. Enkidu is transformed from a creature of nature who has few needs or wants (since animal needs are minimal) into a human, a "civilized person." One of the results of this transformation is that Enkidu's felt needs increase.  

Sedlacek uses the story to make applications to Western culture, where "people are not able to satisfy their needs even with the riches and technology of the twenty-first century." Enkidu was happy in his natural state, because all his needs were satisfied. But with "civilized people," "it appears that the more a person has, the more developed and richer, the greater the number of his needs (including the unsaturated ones). If a consumer buys something, theoretically it should rid him of one of his needs - and the aggregate of things they need should be decreased by one item. In reality, though, the aggregate of "I want to have" expands together with the growing aggregate of "I have."" (K, 7%)

Sedlacek cites economist George Stigler, who was aware of "human unsaturatedness." "The chief thing which the common-sense individual wants is not satisfactions for the wants he had, but more, and better wants." (Ib.)

In America people have a perpetual unsaturatedness. As products of our Western culture we are forever unsatieted, always dissatisfied. 

The achievement of a biblical contentment would be the ruin of Western civilization. This Pauline secret is stated in Philippians 4:12 - I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. Sedlacek tells us that, without this antidote, contentment-as-saturatedness is forever beyond our reach.