Myths of capitalism: the myth of scarcity

“We have to make the hard choices.”

“If we raise the minimum wage, unemployment will increase.”

“If we spend money on social programs, our grandchildren will pay for it.”

“If we don’t decrease benefits, Social Security will become bankrupt.”

How often have we seen these ideas, splashed across the editorial pages of newspapers, dribbling from the corporate mouthparts of the pundit class, or floating in the muck of right-wing plans to “reform” us back to the Gilded Age?

All of these ideas offer a “hard choice,” an either/or: EITHER we have living wages OR we have jobs; EITHER we foot the bill OR our kids will; EITHER today’s senior citizens give up some of what they earned OR tomorrow’s seniors will get nothing.

In other words, EITHER we hurt the working class OR we hurt the working class.

In philosophy, this kind of argument is called a false binary: a fallacy where someone offers two choices as the only possibilities, deliberately excluding other options.

In the case of these right-wing talking points, the option no one wants to mention is taxing the rich and cutting corporate subsidies to invest in social welfare, good jobs, and education!

It’s not hard to see why the ruling class uses this technique. They want to make workers think that our only choice is between how and when we pay to keep their profits flowing. They want to hide the real choice between paying and making them pay.

We would be wrong to think that this self-serving nonsense is somehow new, a creation of a particularly predatory ruling class or an increasingly fanatical right wing.

The truth is that this fallacy is written in the DNA of capitalism. The basis of capitalist economics is the idea that there isn’t enough to go around, that somebody is going to have to go without.

We can see it in the classical definition of economics: “the science of allocating scarce resources to maximize the achievement of competing ends.” In other words, there isn’t enough to go around; somebody is going to have to go without.

We can see it in the way people talk about education, not as a way of forming citizens for a democracy, but as a way of training young people to compete in an increasingly ruthless job market. There isn’t enough to go around; somebody will have to go without.

We see it every time bosses ask for givebacks and benefit cuts, or lay off another round of workers to “stay competitive.” There isn’t enough to go around; somebody will have to go without.

We see it in the thousands of advertisements claiming to help working people “stretch their dollar,” in countless finger-wagging admonishments to “live within our means” as wages stagnate and prices increase. There isn’t enough to go around, so the working class can go without.

To scarcity, to going without, to this inhuman and predatory economics, we say ENOUGH!

We, the working class, have had enough of scrimping and scraping and going without.

We, as a society, have enough to go around. We are the richest and most productive society in the history of the world. Our labor has generated untold wealth, now concentrated in the hands of the few while the many go without.

If we think in terms of Dr. King’s “radical revolution in values,” it is time to replace the economics of scarcity with a new economics of abundance, whose first principle is that however much there is, there is enough to go around.

We might look to tiny Cuba, strangled and impoverished by the U.S. economic blockade, whose entire GDP is scarcely more than the 60 billion dollars a year we lose to legal corporate tax dodges. With its limited resources, Cuba provides housing, education, food, and health care to every one of its citizens.

This is what the story of loaves and fishes, the feeding of the multitudes by fair distribution, looks like in the modern world. If it is a miracle, it is one that we can work for ourselves. We must break, once and for all, with the myth of scarcity.

We are faced with a choice of who will pay to rebuild our infrastructure, educate our children, and transition to a green economy. We will not, cannot, pay, and neither can our children or grandchildren.

So make the billionaires pay. They might have to cut back on buying private islands and elections, but isn’t it time they go without for a change?

This article is the first installment of a four-part series about the “big lies” of capitalism, the corporate talking points that bosses and billionaires use to confuse.

Photo: Teresa Albano/PW


Scott Hiley
Scott Hiley

Scott Hiley has taught French, literature, history, and philosophy at the high school, college, and post-graduate levels. He is active in struggles against austerity and for education justice and labor rights. His articles have appeared in People’s World (U.S.),  Morning Star (UK), and l’Humanité (France). He lives in a rural town in upstate NY.