A bit of the wisdom in Genesis

As astute historians of the dismal science have appreciated, the first mention of the idea of scarcity is contained in the Old Testament. Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden illustrates a basic fact about the human condition that’s been codified in the first principle of economics.  What few appreciate nowadays is the significance of this insight for our collective worldview in the West.

What the Expulsion says about Adam’s and the human condition more generally is this: it is not thy neighbor’s fault that ye must toil for your supper; it is not on your neighbor’s account that you are forced to till the soil and tend livestock. It is the condition of all men that they must toil for their supper.

Like good news, good ideas rarely make headlines. We forget how much this idea shapes us and the culture in which we live. To see its effect, one has to consider counterfactual questions: what would life be like if the Book had said something different?  What if Genesis had said that evil men have caused you to suffer, or that History and its material forces have caused you to suffer—or any number of other things that turn brother against brother?

Though it’s never been studied, indirect evidence is found in the weakness of the idea of what anthropologists call “limited good” in Western societies (i.e., weakness when compared to non-Western ones).  Marx and the influence of socialism granted, Westerners have been disinclined to accept the idea that their neighbors are to blame for their misfortune—that the human condition might be fixed if only so-and-so could be brought to justice.

To be sure, Westerners individually and sometimes collectively have succumbed to the belief that disparities of wealth and other intangibles have been caused by others (and sometimes they are). But our better selves—or, rather, our Biblical selves—tend to suppose that our neighbors earned what they have, not that they’ve taken it from us. It is cognitive fact, I suggest, that this belief is only really possible once we’ve accepted that the natural state of things is scarcity, not plenty.

There is the interesting corollary, of course, in that we would never have escaped our condition as much as we have if it were not for this belief in scarcity. Indeed, we would have wallowed in squalor, forever seeking redress through redistribution if we hadn’t internalized this belief long ago.

2 thoughts on “A bit of the wisdom in Genesis

  1. One glaring thing you post doesnt address is your place of birth. You cannot choose where you are born; thus being born into poverty, or into a wealthy family is outside of human control. You cannot earn a better start in life.

    Its obvious that people have and can succeed in coming out of poverty with self effort. I acknowledge that.

    Yet the effort they have to exert is substantially more than when you already have the resources.

    Blaming others for your misfortunes is a generalization and a misrepresentation. I value self effort and hard work in succeeding in life, yet at the same time I acknowledge that there are ways of levelling out the field in which it allows the more misfortunate to reach their full potential more easier. It has little to do with some boogy-man socialist state, but more to do with taking a hybrid of ideas and forming a government that funtions for its citizens.

    My point is that not everything is this or that – black or white – socialism or capitalism. Its a complex world with many infused and different ideas can fall anywhere in between the continuum.

    1. Thanks for your comment.

      First off, the post wasn’t a moral judgement against poor people. It was a reflection on one of the unseen elements in our collective psyche.

      “…into a wealthy family is outside of human control….when you already have the resources.”

      I implied that material standing doesn’t mean much without the right attitude. Being born poor into a culture that gives you one is better than being born wealthy in a culture that doesn’t. It’s a variation on the old teaching someone to fish versus giving him a fish: the right attitude makes you and your neighbors able to become wealthy even when you’re all poor; the wrong attitude will destroy your wealth when you’re rich.

      Sure, you can’t pick the culture you’re born into either, but I didn’t claim otherwise.

      “Blaming others for your misfortunes is a generalization and a misrepresentation.”

      A misrepresentation of what? Human beings? You’ve never met someone with a chip on his shoulder? The fact is that some cultures and some political ideologies are strongly egalitarian, and they identify good fortune with misdeeds. They believe you only get wealthy by taking it from someone else.

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