Imagining 2 economic worlds: relative abundance and relative scarcity

Let’s build a naturalistic account of a social order under the conditions, first, of abundance and, next, of scarcity. By a “naturalistic account,” I mean the most formal rendering conceivable of human activity based solely on the simplest principles of human life and on the most threadbare of “lived logics.” Below, points 1-4 are neutral with respect to abundance and scarcity while points 5-9 depict a society of abundance, 10-18 one of scarcity.

1. Human beings are social animals.

2. No human being, young or old, can supply all its basic needs and wants.

3. It follows that human beings are and will always be mutually dependent on each other in order to persist and flourish. (How mutually dependent is, of course, an open question. There would need to be room in this account, which I beg off furnishing in what follows, for the achievement of relative independence.)

4. Insofar as human beings are mutually dependent on each other in order to survive and flourish, their most basic form of engagement would doubtless be giving and receiving. Giving and receiving food, touches, sex, words, things, ideas, and so on.


5. In a society of relative abundance (i.e., a society in which there is at least “just enough” to go around), it is conceivable that a gift economy would arise, with givings and receivings flowing freely among all social beings. An implicit background sense of “trust” or a “friendliness of life” would be the way of the world.

6. Over time, some vague sense of dike (roughly: justice) would doubtless emerge: i.e., some basic understanding of giving enough to each.

7. One could imagine simple gestures and verbal utterances becoming codified as concepts. An “invitation” (extended hand, open arms, etc.) would be the word for drawing someone closer in order to give him his due. “Gratitude” (exhalation, a gathering forth embrace, etc.) would be the word for acknowledging that one has received what is proper or mete, i.e., an acknowledgement that one’s basic needs and desires have been met. And “praise” would be a third party’s way of expressing that the givings and receivings have been properly performed by P and Q, i.e., performed in the right manner by both.

8. Now, during lean periods (droughts, famines, etc.), one would expect to see certain vaguely understood but embodied virtues or excellences (arete) that would conjointly serve to keep the social order intact. “Courage” would mean holding onto what lies before one and/or letting go of what was unnecessary. “Temperance” would mean not taking too much for oneself or one’s own, possibly going without for a spell. “Judgment” (phronesis) would involve knowing when to give what to whom and when to receive what from whom.

9. After a lean period was over, social beings dwelling together in this form of life would “celebrate” by giving out more than is due to each and all, by spilling forth an excess onto the earth, and by offering up an excess to the sky. All this would be done in order to restore the “friendliness of life,” the basic comportment of man toward nature. “Celebration” would be a goodly naive form of self-forgetting. Otherwise, a hostility of man toward man or man toward nature would set in and destroy the order. (I.e., the aim of the celebration would be to “make amends” by negating the possibility that a society of scarcity could emerge.)


10. In a society of relative scarcity (i.e., a society in which there is not enough to go around), however, the harmony of givings and receivings would break down. Here, one would see distrust of man toward man, here hostility of man toward nature. How would the social order break down?

11. P might devise a means for getting more than Q, R, S (etc.) receives. (acquisitiveness)

12. P might devise a strategy for getting more than Q offers by Q’s assenting to give P more than Q gets. (master and slave)

13. P might learn to give nothing but expect Q, R, S (etc.) to give everything. (free riding)

14. P might learn how to receive more than P needs and then hold onto things. (private property)

15. P might dream of getting as much as possible and of giving as little as possible. (the con, the bargain, the really sweet deal)

16. P might devise a means of getting, holding onto, and then passing onto persons of P’s choosing. (a will)

17. P might learn how to get now by saying that P will give later (credit).

18. P might learn how to give some to Q now on the condition that Q be willing to give more to P later (debt).

“Unjust” could be the concept we apply to points 10-18, where “unjust” simply meant that givings and receivings were out of order. For points 10-18 imply that P, seeing a world in which there isn’t enough to go around and fearing lest his needs and desires should go unfulfilled, recoils and overcompensates by devising strategies P can use for getting his own or more than his own without full regard for Q, R, S, etc. P has learned to be wily.


Suppose we roll back the clock and envision a world of relative abundance akin to the one visible in points 5-9, a world of “just enough” in which a story unfolds following from 1-9. What might we imagine? What kinds of givings and receivings would then be possible? Perhaps that world could still be ours.

Further Reading

Andrew Taggart, “Our Arquebus Moment”

9 thoughts on “Imagining 2 economic worlds: relative abundance and relative scarcity

  1. Interesting post which I agree with. However just to put the cat amongst the pigeons. I currently live in a country where there is enough to go around and yet we still live in a society of scarcity.

    1. Hi nathfuller: Thanks for this comment. I think the paradox can be unraveled by drawing to a distinction between (1) what is the case and (2) what empirical individuals believe to be the case. It could be true, according to (1), that there is, as a matter of fact, enough to go around. However, individuals may not believe this and may have grown up not to believe this. Part of the philosophical endeavor, it seems to me, is a long, nurturant education of the soul. Can the young be educated to learn that there’s enough to go around? I’m sanguine. There’s–to put it somewhat poetically–a certain softening that occurs when we slowly, very slowly realize this.

  2. But is it simply a matter of education? What about the psychology of one — a P — who continually and only sees only scarcity? I’ve known people who live with scarcity, but FEEL abundance, and vice versa.

    I have serious doubts that “education” can reach all of us, but I am perhaps too cycnical.

    1. The point is well taken, Alexis. Let me try to disentangle some knots and see what you think.

      1. The thought experiment I undertake is supposed to be a- or pre-psychologistic or theadbare psychologistic pursuit. That is: Plunk down beings with very few ‘inputs’ and then “roll the tape forward” and see what happens. These beings are not yet flesh and blood human beings with blue hair and blonde eyes (strike that, reverse it).

      The 1st aim of the fiction or thought experiment is to show what would likely happen when the conditions that support life change. The 2nd aim is to say that, in a small enough community or lifeworld, these beings might never “experience” or “know” scarcity. The idea simply wouldn’t occur to them.

      (It’s as though they’d never taken a course in modern economics. As though modern economics, which is invented in the 17th. C., had never existed.)

      2. I take education in a VERY broad sense to be the cultivation of moral and intellectual virtues (arete) over the course of a lifetime. In this, I part ways entirely with our modern educational institution. So, the concept of education for me is not what you’ll find when you go to the NYT and look up “education” (skills acquisition, professionalization, job growth, etc.) but something else entirely.

      3. I’m finding–and this is simply anecdotal, so keep that in mind–in my philosophy practice that, under the right conditions, we can learn to give and receive wholeheartedly. I’ve come to believe that a gift economy is the natural result of the ‘kinds of beings human beings are provided that they’re not put into hostile conditions.’

      All this, I have to say, is still very, very surprising to me, very raw actually, not least because I wasn’t sure that I had the courage or fortitude to do it. But if this kind of community–in this case, a group of individuals who are linked through me and bound in many ways to each other, all of whom are engaging freely in gifting–is possible, then why couldn’t the idea also be transplanted into other places, found in other enclaves, etc.? If the claim is that it’s not possible on a very large scale, about the status of that claim I too remain agnostic. For now anyway; I’m not really sure that it is. But on the small scale, I’m very, very sanguine. (Ahem, my life work is *staked* on its becoming a reality.)

      P.S. Reading Wharton’s House of Mirth. Lovely recommendation. More anon…

  3. This reminds me of the ways both our appetites and our bodies’ capacity for storing energy as fat can be manipulated by the sense of abundance or scarcity: the distinction holds even down to the level of individual cells’ lipid storage. Thinking about that gives me the strong sense that you are describing something very deeply ingrained in human psychology, even though (as alluded to in other comments) it’s the perception of abundance or scarcity that controls the response, rather than any external reality.

  4. That’s really interesting, Eldan. I’ve always thought about it in the very abstract sense of creatures (1) being uncertain–in a very vague but also visceral way–about “well, how much is there? enough to go around? enough for me?” and (2) order being maintained or not once the sense that, “Oh, damn, there’s not enough, is there?” starts to hold sway. Maybe our cells *also* talk this way to each other. ;)

    1. I think that is more or less how it works. Only the cells don’t get to communicate one-to-one–I think only neurons get to do that–so it’s all mediated through hormones. Hungry cells communicate their hunger one-to-many, and then when there’s a blood sugar surplus again they receive the scarcity signal many-to-one. Now I wonder if I’m pushing the metaphor too far by suggesting that mass media serves a similar purpose….

      Disclaimer: it is some time since I studied any of this stuff seriously, so there is some risk that I’m garbling the explanation.

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