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When some yell 'scarcity,' time to act abundantly

The recent Republican plan to offset hurricane relief through budget cuts reflects an outmoded 'scarcity doctrine' that invites limitation in society. Applying a loaves-and-fishes 'abundance model' does the opposite. A small liberal arts college in North Carolina shows why.

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Cantor’s proposal, which held the potential to deny aid to disaster victims on the basis of scarcity, stands on an old tradition, however. The “dismal science” of Thomas Robert Malthus was a theory of the inevitable scarcity of food. Thus, poverty was portrayed as inevitable, and incurable. Those who actually could have done something were absolved of curing what was, after all, incurable.

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Ironically, Malthus was writing at the end of the 18th century, just as science and technology began multiplying the productivity of resources and making the end of poverty a real possibility, given the social will to do so. (Malthus certainly never foresaw a Green Revolution in which new technologies would have the potential to create jobs and harness renewable energy, beyond the trap of limited resources.)

Thus the “dismal science” was on shaky ground almost as soon as it was proposed. For almost two centuries, scientific technology and investment have been increasing economic output per worker in developed countries by an average approaching 2 percent per year, compounded. In real terms, developed society has seen a huge increase in productivity and prosperity over the past 200 years.

A well-known economist of the last generation, John Kenneth Galbraith, once wrote convincingly of America’s “Affluent Society” – at a time when GDP was much smaller per capita than now. Galbraith argued that the idea of scarcity was outmoded, and argued for better use of the abundance that really existed.

Yet the scarcity doctrine dies hard, perhaps because America’s formative years overlapped the heyday of the “dismal science.” The saying “there’s no such thing as a free lunch” remains common in business circles and pays homage to the scarcity model.

American religious traditions help to counter the scarcity doctrine, however. Biblical literature regularly emphasizes abundance as a greater reality than scarcity. For example, the disciples of Jesus misjudged their teacher’s ability to feed huge crowds. The Good Samaritan is a symbol of rendering immediate aid to fellow humans in need without first engaging in a cost-benefit study. Manna in the wilderness overcame scarcity during the exodus. The emphasis on abundance is well placed: It replaces insecurity with attitudes that lead to generosity and other moral traits, long valued and practiced in American society.

Indeed, the Harvard economist, Benjamin Friedman, in his “Moral Consequences of Economic Growth,” argues that societies are most open and progressive in times of abundance and growth, while at their worst in times of scarcity. Seeing through the lens of abundance rather than of scarcity surely has moral implications. It may also have some practical consequences.


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