It is the natural tendency of all systems to outgrow themselves and to become unsustainable. This is a tendency I have described previously as barnaclization (see The Barnaclization of Systems and Institutional Dissociation). There can be no question that many aspects of the global economy exhibit various forms of barnaclization, sometimes in its early forms and sometimes in the later stages of encrustation. The global financial system pretty fairly falls into the latter category. In taking a step back, almost anyone can see that there will be a sustainability problem with a system that establishes an unbounded hierarchy of incentives connecting the highest offices on Wall Street to the smallest of small-town investment advisors. Similarly, no one can really be surprised that there will be problems when all forms of government see unbounded debt as an acceptable method for co-opting special interests, deferring decisions and placating voters. When these systems interconnect and become integral to how communities and people go about their daily lives then the only hope for correction will lie in catastrophic failure, of which we have had a few recent examples.
So there is a sense in which the Occupy Wall Street movement, and its various echoes even including an Occupy Ottawa initiative, does have a good point to make. It can however be observed that in decrying the demerits of an economic system that increasingly rewards 1% of the population the protestors are largely advocating for remedies that have always encouraged new forms of barnaclized hierarchy. Specifically, the implied solution to the imbalances created by unbridled capitalist barnaclization is the elaboration of additional governmental control mechanisms that themselves quickly become self-serving encrustations that are wholly unsustainable (if history is anything to go by).
It can be helpful to recall the wisdom of St. Paul who offers us a stark but inescapable truth – Radix Omnium Malorum est Cupiditas, or Greed for Gain is the Root of All Evil. It is helpful because it can prod us to consider whether or not the Occupy Wall Street protestors can really be so easily differentiated from the outrageously rapacious bankers that they are protesting against. When we consider that the gain being sought by various parties can take many forms, and not solely or directly money, then it does make it harder to make the distinctions. Rest assured that the people manning the barricades have their reasons for doing so and that these reasons will only partially be altruistic whatever they may declare or think.
Of course the wisdom of St. Paul is a rather daunting standard to invoke as it would seem to leave us very little latitude to go about doing business, or indeed living, in a way that we can recognize. As a businessman, it is a question I have had to consider on more than one occasion. Fortunately, the wisdom of St. Paul carries with it a good deal of, well, wisdom. (Quite apart from any inspiration that might be involved, we should recall the historical St. Paul was very much a man of this world before his conversion and therefore knew whereof he spoke.) It does not, for example, pillory gain itself as the source of evil but rather an undue and unbridled pursuit of it. Going further, it does seem to imply that a fair gain, such as realized through a genuine exchange of value, should not be a problem. And this is where the wisdom of St. Paul shifts from being a prohibition to being a pointer towards a better choice. Specifically, if you undertake to earn your gains through the provision of value to those from which you are collecting returns, and if you even go so far to deliver a surplus of value, then it becomes possible that what gains are realized will be bought and paid for in the exchange and therefore fairly earned. Now this is a line of thinking on which many a medieval scholar spent countless hours working by candle light and we can observe that medieval society, and medieval thought in particular, achieved its own dizzying heights of barnaclization.
Nevertheless, the wisdom of St. Paul does provide us with a starting point from which incremental adjustments might be made to our economic system. And the Wall Street protestors are helping us to revisit some elements that could certainly benefit from adjustment. But the wisdom of Saint Paul would definitely incline us to sidestep grand visionary schemes of sweeping reform because we know where this leads. Or at least I hope we have learned this one lesson.