Utopia and the freeconomy

If money was our only motivation, only idiots would become teachers. Not that it would matter, since nobody would give birth to children in the first place. But what does this have to do with Utopia? Read and find out!

We are living in troubled times. There are wars and rumors of wars, and due to first high food prices and now the financial crisis, millions of people have sunk down into poverty over the last year or two. It is natural that many people living in this world today feel gloomy. And with unstable regimes gaining nuclear weapons – and some of them probably qualify as mentally unstable as well – the fears of massive destruction are returning a generation after the Cold War ended. It seems like a bad time to stand up and shout: “Turn your mind around, for Utopia is near! Listen to my words and let us together create a Golden Age!”

And yet, the objective truth is that we are living in an age of almost unbelievable affluence for much of mankind. Even as America and some nations that depended on her has had a bad year, economic growth in China remains far above what we in the west would call a boom. Many developing countries have continued to develop, as far as each of them was independent on western financing. And even in the valley of recession, most people in the West have a standard of living their grandparents could not have dreamed of. I know this because I was there, but there are plenty of books, old newspaper archives and movies from 50 years ago. It is a scientific fact that for all classes of western society, living standards have improved and life expectancy has increased. Yet we rarely celebrate this. A large part of the gloom is of our own making, then. We quickly adapt to what we have, but mourn our losses for far longer, and even feel the loss of what we never had. If we turned our mind around, we would already be living in a Golden Age. (I have cheated a little and already done this before I started writing, so I know this from experience.)

Today I want to write once more about a special part of the Golden Age, which I have mentioned before but not in this context. It is what we call the “freeconomy”. The word is obviously a combination of free (as in not costing anything to get) and “economy”. This is a poorly explored field, because it should not have existed according to most economic theories.

Economics is based on the notion that people will do anything for money and nothing without it. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of human nature. The ruling economic systems in the world today are based on a species that does not exist on our planet. This is rather famously said about communism, but it is to a large degree also true of capitalism. While more realistic than its eastern counterpart, capitalism is still breaking down past a certain point, namely the point where our physical needs are actually filled.

The fact is that when we have food, clothes, a roof and some such stuff, we start wanting to realize our inner nature. How much money this requires varies depending on each of our nature. Traveling is still fairly expensive, while there are other people whose inner nature manifests in making things from nothing and giving them away. Economic theory breaks down in face of such people. The solution society has found is to apply relentless pressure on the populace to create artificial needs through intense, manipulative advertising. If you have been away from television for months and get to see some of their ads, you will cringe at the crass and completely unrealistic message. But as long as almost everyone is bathed in this message from toddlerhood onward, it works, keeping people down in in an artificial state of need.

When I call modern emotional advertising satanic, I am not merely using the word mythologically, but quite literally. The Hebrew word “satan” supposedly means “adversary, one who plots against another”. These people pretend to be helpful to you, but their success depends on keeping you from discovering free and lasting sources of happiness, much less making other people happy. I ask you to stop for a few seconds to think: Will you believe those who use you like a milking cow, over someone who freely gives his time and his money to try to reach you with a message that will make you happy forever? Which of these two has the motivation to tell you the truth?

Here and there, scattered people are breaking free. The reason may vary. Almost the whole world of blogging, for instance, is a facet of the freeconomy. People contribute their knowledge, their insight, their experience for free, or even in some cases pay to reach a larger audience. Of course, much of this is very nearly worthless, but they still try. And in the world of entertainment, the freeconomy is now a big part. People write short stories and whole novels and publish them on the Net for free. A multitude of online comics are available for those who like that, more than you could possibly read each day and still keep a job. Most free games are still quite simple (though you can download free chess programs that are a match for any non-professional player), but even commercial computer games have a whole underbrush of free additions made by their fans. And of course there i Linux, the free operating system that is now on a similar level as Windows and in some ways better.

While the most obvious signs of the freeconomy are online, I will go further and claim that there is an element of it in ordinary employment. Here in Norway, for instance, you actually lose money by taking a long education. This comes from a combination of progressive taxation and a low spread in payment. People with a long education earn their money over fewer years, and so even if they earn a bit more each year even after tax, it is not enough to make up for the cost of their education, in many cases not by far. They still do it though, because they love their job. They are actually willing to lose money to do the job they want. This is a flagrant breach of the laws of economy. If economic theory was true, Norway would soon have one of the least educated work forces in the world, but the opposite is true. Depending on how you measure it, we are the top or one of the top 3. Because people can afford to lose that money, they do it, because they want to do what they love and love what they do.

When our physical needs are met, there are other needs that take priority. It is true that one of the most powerful is recognition, or praise. But the truth is also, as a much better man than I has said, that “it is more blessed to give than to receive”.

Even if it did not bring joy, we would have been obliged to give something back to the society that gave us food, clothes, education, entertainment, communications. With all due respect for our parents – and for me and many others, our parents have been awesome – the fact is still that they in turn relied on the greater society to make our lives possible. And even after we grew up, we rely from day to day on a huge number of ordinary people who go about their work so we can have the essentials of civilized life: Yogurt, computer games and Internet access. If we are physically able, it should be morally compelling to work even if we did not get paid more than we needed to stay afloat.

But moral compulsion aside, doing something for others is a source of joy in its own right. I am sure you have felt this. There are of course many ungrateful people, and human nature is to think about these for days or decades after you met them. But if we shift our perspective and think of the times when we felt that our help reached someone? Do you remember the feeling you had at that time? The warm glow, the joy welling up inside when you saw a smile light up the face of someone you helped? When we consciously seek to help others through our job, and pay attention to the opportunity to give, there can be many such occasions.

Imagine a realm of Heaven, where all your physical needs have fallen away. You will never feel hungry or thirsty or tired or in pain. Yet, these absences are not in the long run sufficient cause for happiness. You can only so long go on thinking “yay, my head does not hurt, my neck does not hurt, my back does not hurt” etc. But if we add other people, things suddenly change. Because we can make each other happy with good words, and this comes at no cost to ourselves. In fact, on the contrary, we will feel that warm glow and joy inside when we bring a smile to the face of another.

Now, you may not believe in Heaven, but you probably do believe in Norway, which is a reasonable approximation. Oh, we still can have pain here, but due to the widespread high standard of living, we don’t have to worry about food, clothes, roof and walls. In a society like this, work is not simply a way to stay alive. It can be either a way to earn more and more money and waste it trying to gain happiness by curling up around your own desires, or a way to help others and bring a smile to the face of a stranger. Which of these do you think makes people more happy? Yes, that was a leading question, but it is still trivially true. Even if you were emperor of Earth, you could never get everything you wanted, because your wants would simply grow to always exceed what you could give them. This is human nature. But even if you are just an entry-level worker, if you work with something that benefits others, you can imagine the smile on their face when they realize what you have done for them, and you feel that warm glow in your heart and mind.

Take away the satanic brainwashing of modern advertising, replace it with simple truth, and the advanced societies like Norway would immediately be able to enter a golden age where people were motivated to work by the joy they would bring to others, rather than by their raging desires. Utopia is that close. We just have to stand up to the lies, lift the radiant torch of simple truth, and grasp the better world that is just within reach. Best of all, we can do this one by one. There is nothing to say that we can’t help others AND get paid for it. I do this each workday, and perhaps you do too, but you may not have seen it in that light. Please do. Think about how you can help bring happiness to others with the work you would do anyway, at the workplace or in your home. When we start seeing things this way, we can see that the Golden Age is right here, right where we are.

Turn your mind around, for Utopia is at hand!