A social scientist and activist makes a case for setting limits on our free-market society.
Patel (Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System, 2008) aims to shake readers out of complacent acceptance of the free-market economy, which has recently gone awry, with devastating consequences. Rather than hoping for a business-as-usual recovery, he writes, we must find new ways of valuing the world other than pricing it and letting the free market sort it out. Patel begins by tracing the roots of the market economy to the works of writers ranging from 19th-century political economist John Stuart Mill to 1992 Nobel laureate in economics Gary Becker, who argues that allowing the market to reign will ensure society’s well-being. Patel derides Becker’s work as encouraging policies that favor the powerful, notably corporations, which seek only to maximize profits and wind up creating significant social costs (degraded ecosystems, etc.) that society must bear. Noting that recent research indicates that humans have built-in desires for altruism and fairness as well as selfishness, the author describes innovative efforts to create a more compassionate society by such groups as La Via Campesina, an international peasant movement that supports family-farm–based sustainable agriculture. “From food rebellions to free software,” he writes, “social movements are at the cutting edge of practical politics and economics, trying to create new ways to control the world without owning it.” A tireless advocate for the developing world, Patel urges readers to consider a new vision of society based on an ethic of stewardship that subordinates property and markets to democratic concerns of equity and sustainability. Much of Patel’s thinking is informed by a Buddhist world view that places the real value of something not on its ability to meet a desire or craving, but to meet the need for well-being.
A pleasing invitation to act on our most benign impulses to create a sustainable future.