Neil Tambe

Husband, Father, Citizen, Professional.

I'm a Detroiter who happens to enjoy writing, national parks, orange juice, the performing arts, and fanciful socks. More than anything though, I aspire to be a good husband, father, and citizen.

4: Abundance

April 24, 2017

In the thought experiment about the tribe, I argued that there are two ways to deal with the difficult and inevitable corruption problem. One option is to build institutions that put boundaries in place to protect against and deter corruption. The other option is to build a culture in which individuals choose goodness rather than power - so that conflict (and in turn corruption) is less likely to occur in the first place.

Truth be told, it’s not an either / or choice. In the real world building institutions and building cultures that choose goodness are both important. Neither approach alone solves the corruption problem.

But I offer one other path to mitigate - but not solve, perhaps - the corruption problem: abundance. That's a huge logical leap to make so let me explain what I mean.

In our world, there is scarcity. Resources are limited. There isn’t an unlimited supply of everything we want and need. We have to deal with constraints and trade-offs.  And those constraints and trade-offs cause stress, because constraints create a tension between what we want and what we have. That stress causes conflict, because people act nutty when they feel like they are in a state of scarcity.

A mindset of scarcity not only makes people nutty, it makes them nutty in ways that make it even harder to get out of the scarcity they suffer from. For example, if you don't have enough money to feed your family, you don't just get stressed, you get stressed in ways that make you spend money even more carelessly than you would normally.

And by scarcity, I'm not just talking about food, water, and shelter. Scarcity could be of time, love, respect, or companionship. It could be a scarcity of meaning. From what I've seen, scarcity of any and all of these types can make people go nuts - I certainly have, as I told you about earlier.

How do you think the tribe in our thought experiment would be different if there weren't scarcity? If the rule-enforcer in the tribe had enough so that he wasn't easily bought, would he succumb to corruption as easily? If the prolific farmer wasn't worried that he wasn't going to run out of food over the winter, would he be as willing to offer a corrupt proposition?

What I suggest is that abundance is a way to mitigate corruption, because if people in a community don’t feel scarcity they’d have less of a need to cheat the system, so to speak. Moreover, if abundance led to less conflict, which I think it would, there may be less need for “the system” in the first place (but I’ll provide a more nuanced thought on this point, however, in a little bit).

But there’s a reason I’m about to write you many letters about goodness and power, rather than abundance. Abundance doesn’t actually solve the corruption problem, it merely displaces it.

Why? Because in the real world, abundance isn’t evenly distributed. We are mortal men who are not perfectly just, nor do we have perfect institutions to mediate the distribution of gains from progress. After technological or other progress creates abundance, the surpluses don’t tend to be spread out evenly. Resources and levels of scarcity end up being uneven - which is exactly the condition which led to the corruption problem in the first place.  

Abundance may make it easier to deal with the tension between power and goodness because fewer people feel like they are in states of scarcity, or their scarcity feels less intense. But abundance is not enough to fully solve the corruption problem. Building better institutions and goodness are still relevant and necessary to solve the problem of corruption.

Perhaps, if we could have such an incredible level of abundance that relative levels of scarcity between people were negligible, maybe that would be sufficient to resolve the corruption problem. If that were true, maybe we wouldn’t have to struggle with the incredibly difficult challenge of becoming men that choose goodness. But that’s not the world we live in, at least right now. That level of abundance is not yet real. We are not off the hook.

I think this digression was worth unpacking, if only for a moment. I felt like I owed it to you to mention abundance, because it does matter. Creating abundance is helpful. Perhaps I will write about abundance to you later. Or perhaps we can discuss it when you are older and we can think and write about it together. It would be a worthy subject to explore.

But alas, abundance is a topic for another time. Now that we’ve identified abundance as useful but not sufficient, let’s return to our chief concerns: power and goodness. We certainly have a lot to discuss.

Your Papa

If you’re interested in reading more of the Choosing Goodness project, I’d love to send you a quick e-letter when I share additions. Please leave me your contact information and I’ll be sure to keep you posted.

To see all the posts in this series, click here.