Citizen Action Monitor

Jackson builds a case for government as a “commitment device” to escape the “iron cage of consumerism’”

But will our selfish pursuit of affluence continue to erode and undermine government’s role as a commitment device?

No 2142 Posted by fw, January 13, 2017

To access all other synopses from Prosperity without Growth, click on the Tab titled “Prosperity without Growth” — Links to All Posts in the top left margin of the Home page.

In Section 3, “Governing the commons”, Tim Jackson discussed issues related to the ownership and management of “common pool resources” — meaning natural or human-made systems such as irrigation systems, fish stocks, pastures, forests, water, and the atmosphere, including the climate, and so forth. To illustrate the contentious nature of private vs. public control of these resources, he related the story about the UK government’s 2008 attempt to privatize nationally owned forests as a cost saving measure. The lesson of the story is twofold: 1) while the government exercised governance over forests (as a common pool resource), the forests were not necessarily the government’s to sell; and 2) never underestimate the power of a vigilant citizenry, who, presumably understanding the government’s governance role, forced it to abandon its forest privatization scheme.

Below, in my synopsis of Section 4, which Jackson titles “Government as a commitment device”, the author picks up from where he left off in Section 3 by making it clear that he is not suggesting that “governance for prosperity can be reduced to the community management of common pool resources.

From this point, Jackson immediately segues to consider the “role for an effective state.” Among these functions is the contentious role of government in shifting “the social logic that has us trapped in the “‘iron cage’ of consumerism.

He then sets out to build the case that the state does indeed have a legitimate role to play in “shifting the social logic” so we can escape from the “‘iron cage’ of consumerism.” Hence the title, “Government as a commitment device.”

The road to commitment can be rocky: “…the hollowing out of government has left us ill-prepared to deal with this ‘crisis of commitment’.” Societies structured to cultivate long-term vision, altruism, and self-transcending behaviours, while penalizing selfish behaviours, will flourish.

Tim Jackson is a British ecological economist and professor of sustainable development at the University of Surrey.

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Government as a commitment device, a synopsis, from Chapter 10, “The Progressive State” of Tim Jackson’s book, Prosperity without Growth, Routledge, 2nd edition, 2016-17

Picking up from where he left off in section 3, Jackson makes it clear that he is not suggesting that “governance for prosperity can be reduced to the community management of common pool resources.

From this, Jackson immediately segues to consider the “role for an effective state.” Among these is the contentious role of government in shifting “the social logic that has us trapped in the ‘iron cage’ of consumerism.

Contentious? How so? The fact is, Jackson reminds us, “governments intervene constantly in the social logic of consumption, whether they [policy makers] like it or not.

Jackson cites examples “where government investment was vital to commercial success. ‘[E]very technology that makes the iPhone smart and not stupid owes its funding to both basic and applied research funded by the State.’”

He points to “a myriad different signals” the state transmits in the form, for example, of “economic indicators,” “public sector performance indicators,” “education policies,” “procurement policies,” “planning guidelines,” “wage policy,” “employment policy,” “product standards,” “regulatory policies,” and response to “community and faith group initiatives.” In all these areas, state policies “shape and co-create the social world.”

So why should it be problematic to defend the state’s role in intervening in “the social logic of consumerism?” After all, as Jackson notes, there is an evolutionary precedent for this – “Societies capable of protecting social behaviour have a better chance of survival.

Do societies not have a responsibility to protect the common good against “the unbounded freedom” of short-sighted individuals and groups who might be tempted to trade away our “long-term wellbeing for short-term pleasures?” Who would argue against “social and institutional mechanisms that moderate the balance of choice away from the present and in favour of the future?

Seems commonsensical. Unfortunately, common sense is not all that common. Our selfish “pursuit of affluence is itself eroding and undermining our commitment devices.”

“Marriage, parenthood, community: all of these have come under attack in modern affluent countries. The explosion of debt, the decline of savings and the financial crisis itself reveal the erosion of economic prudence. And the hollowing out of government has left us ill-prepared to deal with this ‘crisis of commitment’.”

As Jackson explained in Section 5 of Chapter 6, we are compulsively addicted to novelty. It keeps us buying more and more stuff. “The end result,” he says, “is a society ‘locked in’ to consumption growth by forces outside the control of individuals.”

Does this mean “there is not much hope that people will spontaneously behave sustainably?” Not so, Jackson reassures us. He refers us back to Section 6 of Chapter 7, which provides empirical evidence that genetically inherited altruistic behaviour means we can move beyond the “selfish gene.” Societies structured to cultivate long-term vision, altruism, and self-transcending behaviours, while penalizing selfish behaviours, will flourish.

Jackson concludes Section 4 of Chapter 10 on a decidedly upbeat note:

“Taken together these insights point us towards a solution. The key lies in understanding more clearly the role that government – and ‘governmentality’ – plays in this dynamic.”

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