The Price is Unfair

Goods - The Vocabulary of Good Social Life/3

by Luigino Bruni 

Published in Avvenire on October 13, 2013 

logo_avvenireEven if our times are more and more dominated by invisible technology and finance that have no human face, the protagonists of economy are still persons and goods. Every step in economy - from consumption to work, from saving to investing - is an intertwining of persons and goods. And even when people act in the framework of complex institutions, rules and contracts, and even when the goods lose their materiality and seem to be vanishing away, at the end and at the beginning of every economic move we will always find goods and persons. Therefore, in order to be able to write a new vocabulary of economy, parallel to the reflections on persons - as citizens, "consumers", entrepreneurs, workers - it is necessary and urgent to create a new way of thinking about goods, about the objects of economy, and so about consumption and other practices of life. 

Yesterday, today and tomorrow - the economy is something that is always changing evolving and involving along with persons and goods that are changing, evolving and involving. There is a mysterious relationship of reciprocity between persons and goods. If it is actually true that goods are channelled back to people (the only ones on earth to have freedom and therefore, responsibility), then once the goods are generated, they acquire a life of their own and a great capacity to change our lives, well-being and freedom. This is a formidable law of human existence that the great myths have told us and keep telling us in many ways. In fact, we do not only generate children to modify and radically change our lives forever; the things that we create change us, too, they transform us, they make us better or worse and they do not leave us intact. The world is not the same any more after a baby is born, we know this; but even if in different and ever newer ways, the world is in continuous change because of our artefacts, products, encounters and goods. Through the creation, exchange and consumption of goods we nurture and take care of the world, too.

To name merchandise, the first economists chose the word "goods", which is a term borrowed from philosophy and theology. Good (in Italian: bene), in fact, derives from the moral category of good (buono, or bonum in Latin). And therefore it is good to increase goods because - and if - these are good things, they increase the good in people, in families and in cities, they increase the Common Good (bonum commune). For this reason ethical reflection on economy was originally based on the hypothesis that not all goods and things in the economy are good (good things). For example, the ancient ethical reflection on the vices (lust, gluttony, greed, envy...) cannot be comprehended outside this fellowship of goods and the Good, as well as goods and needs.

However, there is a certain point of the cultural and anthropological trajectory of the West where the individuals are not any more willing to accept to be told by someone (tradition, society, religion, a father...) what the "good" goods and the "real" needs are, what the really useful things may be. The subject becomes the only designated person to tell if something is good for them or not, thereby expressing a demand of the paying market. National wealth has then become the sum of these goods (merchandise and services), defined by single persons and the GNP does but measure these goods. And so our economic richness is populated by a billion different goods, measured only by the monetary meter: antibiotics, tickets to watch Pirandello and Ibsen plays in the theatre, flowers bought to give to our loved ones, relational goods, together with the spending for legal services that are generated by our litigations and crimes, landmines, slot-machines, pornography. It's all about goods, GNP and growth. It's all about labour, some say; but it is not difficult to imagine the human quality of the work of someone, perhaps a woman, who has to do printing in a company in the pornography business to make a living - and make richer those who speculate on those "goods".  Not all labour and not all employment are good things, and they haven't been so either. Goods have lost touch with the Good and without this connection we lose the cultural categories to understand that it is not always the increase of goods that is Good, and that not all goods are good things, that not all growth increases happiness or well-being.  The contrast between our goods and the good becomes visible in all its tragic clarity when we look at our natural environment that is all too often the meeting point of individual goods and the Common Bad.

What ethical criteria have we got today to tell whether an increase in percentage of the GNP is good or bad? We should know and tell how and because of what "goods" has the GNP changed, but we are not capable of doing this. If we admit all this with all the drama inherent in it, we still shouldn't forget that one of the conditions for democracy is the presence of a greater number of goods in the world in comparison with those that are good only for me because in this "reject" there may be and there are also those things that are good for me but not for the others and not for the majority. A fundamental exercise of democracy is to tolerate the existence of more goods than those that we actually like. A 'democratic reject', however, should not keep us from engaging in the posing of difficult and risky questions about the moral nature of economic goods and to convince ourselves about the goodness of our goods and that of others.

There is a last remark, too. There are many goods on earth (and many bad things, too) that are not merchandise. In other words, many things have a value but no price, even in the midst of a very quick transformation of (almost) all goods and bad things as regards merchandise. A new indicator of well-being could then be calculated on the basis of the difference between goods and merchandise, which would give us an idea of how much gratuitousness is able to resist the imperialism of merchandise. But beneath the world of things there is something more. The economic value of goods is only a minimal part of their total value. We generate much more goods than the prices and the GNP are capable of measuring. It is a 'value credit' that may compensate, at least partially, or in its entirety, the debt of many bad things that cannot be compensated for in money because they are too human and painful to have a monetary equivalent.

This surplus value over the actual price regards many goods but is especially true for many personal services, for curing, education, health and research... The total value of a medical visit that helps to find the solution for a serious health problem includes a human and moral value, too, that no fee whatsoever can balance. The economic value of a teacher that helps our children to grow and improve is infinitely greater than their pay. This overflow exists (in different measures) in every type of work and the millionaires make it visible with more clarity by the spotlight of indignation. This is what lends a moral value to that "thank you" that we usually say at the petrol station or to the bar tender after having paid.

We all know, feel and suffer these things. It is also for this reason that workers have a vital need for being satisfied and living well - a need that is almost never fulfilled - that of the other forms of symbolic and relational payments that fill in the gap between their salary in money for the "good of work" and the gift of life in work. This anthropological surplus makes work greater than the salary-merchandise and it does so always and anywhere. When we convert values into prices and goods in merchandise, we should never forget the difference between the value of things and their monetary measures, between work itself and its total price. Recognising it and acting accordingly is an act of economic justice that is the foundation of good social life.

 

Further commentaries by Luigino Bruni in Avvenire are available through the Avvenire Editorial

 

Translated by Eszter Kató

 

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