ParEcon Questions & Answers

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ParEcon and Needs?

This section is adapted from the book Parecon: Life After Capitalism.

dDoes Parecon Honor or Denigrate Need?  ?  

In a participatory economy remuneration is for effort expended and sacrifice endured in work. Does this mistakenly reject providing according to needs? Does it prevent needs from being properly met? Does it elevate a self-interested calculus denying more social motivations? Does it induce individualist rather than social inclinations? Even supporters of parecon wonder about these questions. How do we respond?

One issue is does parecon address the needs of people who cannot work?

Yes, parecon provides an average income to those who cannot work. What about people with special health needs? Health care is a free public good in a parecon. What about calamity victims? Insurance is also a public good, so again parecon provides appropriately. What about children? Do parents have to take less social product for themselves in order to clothe, feed, and otherwise provide for children? No, an average income goes to children, by right of being human. Children do not have to work to get their fair share. Parecon remunerates effort and sacrifice but that doesn’t impede meeting needs of those who cannot work because if you cannot work in a parecon, you get an income anyhow. And if you have added health needs, those are met as well.

But wondering about needs-based allocation might involve more subtle matters. Suppose there is a severe cold snap in your region. Should you have to pay for needed heat out of your income, thus leaving less budget for desirable goods than you anticipated just because of bad luck regarding the weather? Should bad weather diminish you budget for getting goods to enhance your life? Or should the cost of heating to withstand the cold snap be provided socially?

Ultimately, we are asking what counts as a health or a calamity request handled outside one’s budget—and what counts as our responsibility within our budgets. No single answer universally applies. Different countries could arrive at different norms. So could a single country at different times or even different regions inside a country. The self-managing choices of the polity and/or workers and consumers councils decide. But it’s plausible to predict that pareconish people will have a bias. To the extent society can protect everyone against harsh circumstances without abrogating other values and without incurring undue expense and disruption, I would imagine pareconish people will likely agree that adjustment policies should reduce any serious suffering for external unforeseeable circumstances, not only in the case of catastrophic calamity, but in lesser cases, as well. In any event, that’s my bias. It seems to me that there is no moral reason to allow some people to fall victim to unpredictable but truly harmful bad luck, while others relatively benefit. But this choice is not built into parecon as an abiding norm in the way that balanced job complexes are built in, for example, and different possibilities exist for how to try to fulfill this aspiration and for the degree to seek to fulfill it, and these differences will be explored differently in different cases, no doubt.

My question is more basic. Isn’t there something wrong when an economy rewards our labors with remuneration rather than simply giving us what we need by virtue of our being human? Why do we have to earn a share? Why isn’t a share ours by right? For that matter, why do we need an incentive to work? Why do we need to get a share of output for our labors, withheld if we don’t do them, rather than each of us working simply because it is our social responsibility to do so—and getting whatever we need, simply by right of our humanity? 

The description sounds exalted, but imagine being ship-wrecked on an island with fifty other folks. We have a lot of toys salvaged from our ship. There is a beautiful swimming area. There are games to be played, music to be performed and heard, relationships to explore, poetry to write, nature to experience, and so on. There is also, however, a need to build housing, grow and harvest food, pot fresh water, maintain single fires, and so on. So there is hard, boring labor, and there is fun and enriched leisure time.

Suppose I announce that I need a dwelling, fresh water, food, a luxurious carved flute, and some newly made clothes. My hap- piness, sanity, and fulfillment depend on having all that, I say. I need it. But I also announce that I would rather not work producing that stuff or anything else. I enjoy swimming and hanging out too much to give time to anything more onerous each day. I need a lot of leisure. That is just me.

Does anyone seriously think my announcements should be honored? But what else does it mean to say that I ought to get what I need regardless than that these announcements are acceptable? If it means, as I suspect it always does, sure, you get what you need, but you have to work the fair amount for it, and what you need isn’t what you say it is but instead what society somehow agrees on in context of what you say, then the phrase “getting what you need unconnected to labor” is misleading rhetoric.

In practice, moreover, in addition to being utopian regarding the amount of output available—we cannot all get all that we want and isn’t what we want in fact what we need?—rewarding need without labor (for those who can work) is actually not equitable at all. And if the assumption is that we will behave to make it equitable, how do we do that without an allocation mechanism which tells us what is a fair amount to work and consume? Likewise, even if I do a fair share of work, should I be able to say I need more than my correlated fair share of food or housing or carved musical instruments just because I determine that it would make me happier? If that is not my unilateral right, then how is appropriate need assessed?

The answer should be that a social process decides what is appropriate, with each actor having proportionate input, and with the decision made in light of an accurate understanding of the full social costs and benefits of the creation and utilization of each product, including of the labor involved. This, of course, is precisely what parecon delivers by accounting for time and effort in production as well as the value of outputs and processes. The point is, for an economy to respect the needs of each actor in the same degree as it respects the needs of all other actors requires that the economy arrive at proper valuations of full social costs and benefits of work and its inputs and outputs and that it apportion shares of output in accord with effort and sacrifice expended, with allowance, of course, for special cases of the sort noted earlier.

So it is precisely because parecon is geared to meet needs and develop potentials that parecon remunerates as it does, determines values as it does, and involves actors in decisions and apportions work responsibilities as it does. If we break the relation between work and income we eliminate the possibility of people knowing what is greedy and what is appropriate, even assuming everyone wants to abide such guides spontaneously, and also of knowing the direction people wish the economy to go in.

And there is another point to be made. A critic may worry that remunerating effort and sacrifice rather than providing for needs irrespective of work will propel actors to seek personal income rather than care about one another. But, in fact, as we have seen, parecon creates a context in which to get ahead personally, even someone who starts out quite self-interested, greedy, and dismissive of the needs of others, has no choice but to address the needs of others. In a parecon we enjoy improved work conditions if society’s average job complex improves, which means we must favor not all changes in our own work place, irrespective of impact outside, but only changes in the whole economy that make the largest gains in quality of life implications of work, even if none of those changes are situated in our own workplace. And the amount we get per hour of average labor at average intensity goes up, likewise, if the whole social product goes up, again imposing on actors attentiveness to society and not just self.

Ironically, therefore, it turns out that giving people what they declare they need with no attention to their participation in production does far less to produce social concern and mutual awareness than rewarding effort and sacrifice, since the former says we need only concern ourselves with assessing our own desires in determining what we want and receiving it, while the later requires that we pay attention to the well-being of the whole community even if we are solely interested in advancing our own well-being. That is, giving people from the social product simply for what they proclaim to be their needs promotes an individualistic, anti-social calculus in everyone, whereas rewarding effort and sacrifice and operating via participatory planning from within balanced job complexes literally requires that we pay attention to the entire social condition, including the situations, needs, and possibilities of others.

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