Economics: “The Greatest Good for the Greatest Number”

The rationale for all contemporary economic models is whether they “deliver the goods”, and by delivering the goods is meant whether they can meet the requirement of satisfying “the greatest good for the greatest number”.  Needless to say, this wasn’t a criterion of efficiency or success for pre-modern economy — aristocratic, feudal, or slave-holding.  But it has been, in any case, the contentious issue that divides left from right, in modern terms, and every contemporary economic theory must at least pay lip-service to the principle.

“The greatest good for the greatest number” seems reasonable enough as a rationale for electing to follow any particular economic model or practice (and there are quite a few, for there are as many flavours of “socialism” as there are flavours of “capitalism”). Basically, “the greatest good for the greatest number” is built right into the names “socialism” or “communism”, or as the ideal of distributive justice or “social justice”, while capitalism relies on acquisitive individualism, the regulating effect of an “invisible hand,” and the “trickle down theory” to argue that it alone realises the ideal of “the greatest good for the greatest number” and that socialism, contrariwise with its distributive justice model, is just leveling, and so makes everyone poor instead.  Therefore, socialism, from the point of view of the capitalist, does not actually satisfy the requirement of “the greatest good for the greatest number”.

So, implicit in the phrase “the public interest” or “the national interest” is an ideal of “the greatest good for the greatest number”, or at least a small gesture in that direction, for rarely does “the rational pursuit of self-interest” take “the greatest good for the greatest number” into account at all, and this leaves some political observers scratching their heads at times wondering why so many appear to vote for policies that are not — or appear not to be — in their general interests.  The “rational” bit in the pursuit of self-interest was always assumed to be the principle of “the greatest good for the greatest number”, and raw self-interest or a self-seeking narcissism.

So “rational” was not assumed to be, earlier, a mere cunning or slyness, but had the meaning “balanced”, “proportionate”, “moderate”, as is implied in the meaning of the word “ratio”.  And it is this factor of the proportionate, balanced, or the ratio in rationality that, having been subtracted from the meaning of “rational”, Jean Gebser has come to identify with “deficient rationality” and the breakdown of the mental-rational structure of consciousness.

Still, “the greatest good for the greatest number” seems like a reasonable aim for selecting a particular economic model, and what is implied in the principle is an ideal of approaching a kind of universal happiness, assuming that the term “greatest good” also means the general happiness or contentment.  There’s the problem, though. Who defines the meaning of “the greatest good” and can economics, alone, actually deliver that “greatest good”?  If economics is oftentimes accused of being the religion of a new “priesthood” (or of voodoo and witchcraft, for that matter) it is because it promises something it can’t actually deliver — universal happiness as the meaning of “the greatest good”, and “greatest” means the supreme or superlative or ultimate good.

This objective contrasts with Carlyle’s reference to economics as “the dismal science”, of course, in which Carlyle — after reading Malthus on population growth — realised that the “greatest number” would keep growing and growing and growing, and that scarcity and deprivation, and not universal happiness and abundance, would be the rule.  In fact, Carlyle seems to come close to suggesting that “the greatest good for the greatest number” might just be, in fact, slavery.

That some notion of “universal happiness” is implied in the ideal of “the greatest good” is evident in the continuous polling that is done to gauge the public mood about the measure of public happiness and  whether the “economy is on the right track”. Usually these polls show a large majority expressing “happiness”. This has always puzzled me, as I very rarely meet anyone who is happy at all.  I can only conclude that people, believing they should be happy even if they are not, answer in the affirmative. “I have a job. I have a nice house. I have a nice car. I have food on the table. I have television.  I have a credit card. Others have none of these things. I should be happy, therefore I am”.

If the polls are anything to go by, we are indeed approaching the state of “universal happiness” that is implied in “the greatest good for the greatest number”. So, then, why does almost everyone seem so unhappy about it?  I’m reminded that that great conservative defender of capitalism, William Buckley Jr, once confided to the author Corey Robin in his old age that “capitalism is boring”.  So, it’s a kind of strange “unhappy happiness” that delivers the goods.

There seems to be a problem with “the greatest good for the greatest number” as a star by which to navigate ourselves and our activities. “A rising tide lifts all boats” (and apparently spirits, too) contains it as an assumption.  The “greatest number” keeps increasing, and so the “greatest good” — if it doesn’t merely become a matter of “every man for himself” — can’t even be defined. Moreover, it puts an emphasis on economics (and economists) that was previously reserved for religion and a priesthood.  Hence we have “economism” and “productivism” today even as “a way of life”.

Economic models, in other words, are not merely expected to function well to secure the physical body against deprivation, but to satisfy the need for individual and spiritual upliftment and fulfillment as well.  Yet, it seems to me that securing the basis for physical survival is the sole justification for economy — to ask from economics not that it bring forth the “greatest good”, but really the minimum good, and certainly not the expectation or promise of “universal happiness” or bliss.

One can certainly put the question: Is the “greatest good” and the “highest good” necessarily the same? Or did the formula “greatest good for the greatest number” subordinate quality to quantity, and so confuse the two.

 

 

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4 responses to “Economics: “The Greatest Good for the Greatest Number””

  1. Abdulmonem says :

    When quality is subordinated to quantity, when value is turned into price, as a result of denying the divine source of knowledge and wealth and negating the moral purpose of life and defiling the message and the messenger. Humanity goes blind and the science of quantity dictates the sure road for destruction. This is not new, history provides us with stories to that effect. Our universe is not blind, it has its system of checks and balances, and we do not know when the strike takes place, if only we know who stops the rain.

  2. LittleBigMan says :

    “And it is this factor of the proportionate, balanced, or the ratio in rationality that, having been subtracted from the meaning of “rational”, Jean Gebser has come to identify with “deficient rationality” and the breakdown of the mental-rational structure of consciousness.”

    Profound and illuminating.

    “Usually these polls show a large majority expressing “happiness”. This has always puzzled me, as I very rarely meet anyone who is happy at all. I can only conclude that people, believing they should be happy even if they are not, answer in the affirmative.”

    It seems to me, being genuinely happy requires a great deal of wisdom and very little of anything else.

    For me, happiness arrived after I finished reading Seth Speaks. There was no way in hell I could’ve gained that wisdom from even living several lifespans. Truth be told, however, all the past events of my life had prepared me to the degree that I was very ready to understand and accept the infinite wisdom in that book. Seth’s works are a gift incomparable to any. Admittedly, though, so far I have read an abridged version of the book in the PDF form. But I have given the full version of the book as a gift to others 🙂

    Living in America, I have very often heard people say “I’m happy!” as a way to express subdued aggression or just to tell someone to go buzz off. It’s rare – at least rare in my experience – that someone would admit they are not happy. In fact, I can’t even remember the last time someone said something to that effect to me. You have to detect everyone’s actual mindset by using other clues that don’t depend on direct communication.

    If people don’t mind expressing to you that they are not happy, that tells me that they trust sharing that feeling with you. But that same person might not be so willing to share with others (e.g. a pollster) the circumstances and even the existence of their unhappiness.

    I have always felt it takes courage and trust for one to share the circumstances of their life’s difficulties with others.

    As for “The Greatest Good for the Greatest Number,” it’s all a lullaby to put the masses to sleep.

    • Scott Preston says :

      In a society erected upon “the pursuit of happiness” (or American Dream, Australian Dream, and so on and so forth) as its principal activity, to admit that you might be unhappy would be to confess to being a loser, a failure, inadequate. So I wouldn’t be surprised that people might answer polls contrary to how they actually feel, especially if their self-esteem is at stake.

      Pretty soon, you’ve persuaded yourself that you are happy even despite your feelings, which sets up a mental conflict, even an unconscious one – a “split personality” as they call it.

      But the first noble truth of Buddhism is to recognise the truth of dukkha (malaise, anxiety, unsatisfactoriness, unfulfillment). If so, denial of dukkha is the first obstacle to the overcoming of dukkha.

      In some ways the words Buddha and Dukkha are contraries.

      The book Seth Speaks is indeed a powerful book.

      • LittleBigMan says :

        “In a society erected upon “the pursuit of happiness” (or American Dream, Australian Dream, and so on and so forth) as its principal activity, to admit that you might be unhappy would be to confess to being a loser, a failure, inadequate.”

        A very astute observation. I believe you are hitting the nail on the head there.

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