Freedom, civilisation and consumption

Libertarians are guys who live on farms.  They buy a bulldozer to dig a dam, and run a pump from the dam, so they can put out a fire, because you can’t rely on the state to save you if your house is on fire.  They have a weapons cache in every room, because you can’t rely on the state to save you if your house is invaded.   Chances are they cheat on their taxes and grow a little weed in their basement, because the state’s rules are a ridiculous, nannying infringement on man’s inherent freedom.

People who live in apartment buildings have a tougher time being libertarians.  They submit to an array of rules which makes them give up a lot.

But the apartment-dwellers get something back.  For every “freedom to” they give up, they get a “freedom from.”  Forgoing the opportunity to park the car on the nature strip results in freedom from parking chaos.  Keeping the bins in the bin area results in freedom from bin chaos. Giving up the freedom to play loud music, also means they get to sleep at night.  On balance, apartment-dwellers are better off with all the rules.

In some ways, curbing our natural tendencies is kind of like the march of civilisation.  My ancestral forebears gave up the right to slay your ancestral forebears, in return for the freedom to not be slain by them.  This rule is a hallmark of civilisation, and no doubt led to a more relaxed lifestyle.  The time they once spent protecting themselves could now be dedicated to other pursuits, such as, in the case of my own ancestors, Scrabble.

As the globe fills up with people, I suspect that the apartment building analogy becomes more relevant.  We are less and less like the rugged cowboy living free from the influence of others.  Increasingly, technology means our lives intersect with others lives.  The more people we interact with, the more likely we benefit from foregoing ‘freedom to’, and obtaining ‘freedom from’.

This applies to consumption.  Deeply rooted in our reptile brains is the desire for things.   Even the most ascetic of bloggers lusts after certain consumer goods. But the consumption has little primary effect, and large side effects.  That is to say, additional consumption doesn’t make us happy, but it does fuck the environment.

A recent report has shown that houses in Australia are the largest in the world.  Houses average 214 square metres.  In Britain, the average house size is 76 square metres.  The largest average floor space in Europe is Denmark, coming in at 137 square metres.  All this empty space is not costless.  The price we pay is in building materials, the price of heating, and diminished urban density worsening commuting times.

We need to agree to stop consuming so much.  Just like our ancestors agreed to quash the niggling bit of their psyche that actually wanted to kill people, we need to stomp out our natural tendency to accumulate endlessly.  A tax on consumption is a good idea.

Taxing income progressively achieves similar ends. The Sandman wants a more progressive tax system . That is, higher rates on higher incomes (and/or lower rates on lower incomes). There is a point at which the marginal value of consumption is low. The third and fourth homes and cars are really just like the peacock’s tail. The benefit is in being seen to have them. Winding back the playing field evenly doesn’t stop this crazy competition, just limits its impact on the globe.

We are bad at living collectively and bad at governing ourselves. The libertarians know that. Our government (it’s not ‘The Government’ – it is of and by us) is susceptible to fail. Watch the second video in this link if you want to be made angry by a single example of how the state can fail publicly, egregiously, and presumably with no consequences

Does this mean we should give up on ways of living together effectively as a group? A massively growing global population suggests that’s not an option. We are going to have to give up more and more freedoms, to all get along.

But it will be to our benefit.

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Thomas the Think Engine is the blog of a trained economist. It comes to you from Melbourne Australia.

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