If you had three wishes, what would they be?
This is a question I asked a friend today. He would be considered down and out by most reckoning. He is older than the age of retirement and he resides in a nursing facility, separated from his wife. He suffers from a chronic medical condition and requires more care than typically available at home.
He is not unlike many others. One day sooner or later we will all share his fate as we age.
He hesitated at my question. I suggested to him he start his reply like this: I wish . . .
He shook his head and whispered, No.
My friend is afraid of wishing. He has been conditioned by his circumstances to expect little from life. His spirit had been beaten down; he no longer dreams.
Economic austerity is like my down-trodden friend. The spirit is the same; the same reduction in expectation and hope. Yet this economic malaise is contrary to the values of our system.
The motive prompting Capitalism is satisfying the hopes and expectations of unlimited human desires:
The advance of civilization is an advance in the needs of man. The more highly civilized he is, the greater is the number of his wants. Primitive man had few requirements and had a great struggle to satisfy these. Modern man has a bewildering number of wants and the possibility of satisfying these wants is much greater than the possibility of satisfying the few necessities of the savage.
The necessities of the savage are physical necessities. Without them he dies. The man of to-day has many wants which he considers as necessities, but which are not essential to existence. Life and existence were to the savage synonymous terms. They are not so now. We realize more and more fully that man does not live by bread alone. There are "longings, yearnings, strivings" which must be satisfied. After all, man is a social animal. He is interested not only in himself but in his neighbors and in his surroundings. Mental and social development can only be secured by a certain amount of leisure, a leisure which is impossible when all efforts must be devoted to wringing from a [reluctant] nature the bare means of subsistence. Hence anything which tends to subdue nature, to gain a greater product with a smaller expenditure of effort, tends to increase the amount of leisure which can be devoted to the production of those things which contribute to mental, social, and emotional development.
The love of knowledge must be fostered, not for the sake of knowledge itself, but because each increase in knowledge gives a greater command over nature and a consequent increase in the satisfaction that man obtains from life. In a struggle for existence there is no place for beauty; everything must be sacrificed to the production of necessities. But in a full life, beauty and art must have their place. A house must no longer be a mere shelter, but a place with a beauty of its own, a delight to the eye as well as a protection from the elements. Music and literature are necessities when the demands of the purely physical being have been satisfied. Life consists more largely in the exchange of thoughts, the influence of mind upon mind, than we are sometimes inclined to believe. There must be free provision for the communion of man with man. In short, our "progress" is the growth of success in developing the physical and mental man to the fullest possible extent.
The problem which confronts man, then, is this: Given a world whose resources are infinite but not all discovered, how to make use of the known resources and discover the unknown, so that each may satisfy his desires to the fullest extent without infringing upon those of his neighbors, and without waste.
To say that this problem is solved is to say that perfection has been achieved and the millennium is at hand.*
As Laing suggests, the motive of economics is the satisfaction of human desires, suggesting there is a limit to austerity under the current economic system.
Those advocating austerity are out of sync with the principles driving Capitalism. They are promoting the lot of the disenfranchised cripple.
My crippled friend is not happy, yet neither does he complain. His survival needs are met, and little more beyond them. He is living austerity; for most a life not worth living. For him, restoring the constitutional right to pursue happiness does not begin with economics. It starts with restoring a broken spirit.
It has something to do with three wishes. When as a society we get our three wishes, the genie is out of the bottle.
* Laing, Graham Allan. "An Introduction to Economics" (1919), pp. 23-25.