The concept of “Not Enough” is built right into most economists’ definition of their field — the study of the distribution of scarce resources. There is only so much a crop will yield, only so many widgets that can be made by a factory in a day. When demand exceeds supply, you get scarcity. Everything and anything has the potential to be scarce.
But if we look at our economic system from the lens of values, scarcity is more than just “demand exceeds supply.” The story of scarcity in the economy goes something like this: people are inherently self-serving. To motivate them to do things, we have to use rewards and punishments. People are only motivated to work when they realize there is not enough food for everybody, and they want to make sure they are not the ones that go hungry. Because of a fear for survival, human beings’ competitive nature and greed are efficiently harnessed by our economic system into something positive – productive work. This is one of the fundamental tenets of our economy – that to motivate people into action whether it is to work or to buy the latest hot holiday toy, we have to create scarcity.
Notice I said we have to create it.
Without actual or perceived scarcity or even the threat of scarcity, the whole theory about what makes the current economy go around falls apart. My point is that our current economy is structured not only on the assumption that scarcity is natural, but that scarcity is necessary. It is so necessary, in fact, that when a market for some good doesn’t contain the condition of scarcity, economists consider it a failure – a “market failure” to be precise. Market failures include things like public parks and clean air – public goods that are economically valuable and widely available (economists say “non-exclusive”) because it is hard to restrict access to it. They are “failures” in part because they are not naturally scarce – scarce in their supply, access or distribution. They do not meet the criteria or conditions for perfect economic markets, and thereby “fail.”
Why exactly are things that are owned by none and enjoyed by all considered failures? Because our system of scarcity cannot recognize sufficiency — the state of having enough. It just doesn’t compute, and so we have system failure.
What if the natural state of the economy is actually sufficiency — the notion that “there is enough and it is finite” as Lynne Twist defines it — and not scarcity? What would be different if our economic system was built on that assumption? What would sufficiency make possible?