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Politics and the Good Life

By Charles Siegel from the Preservation Institute. Original post here.

A century ago, the left's politics was based on a very clear idea of the good life: everyone should have decent housing, decent health care, decent education. At a time when people lived near what we now consider the poverty level, just giving people these basic elements of a decent life would obviously have improved their lives immensely.

But since the 1960s, most people have had these basics, so the left's traditional vision became obsolete. The left wanted to include the minority that was still poor in the general affluence, but it no longer had a vision of the good life that could appeal to the majority.

Today, the right has clear ideas about the good life, but the left still needs to develop a new ideal that is appropriate to a post-scarcity economy.

The religious right has an idea of the good life that they consider authoritative: the principles they find in the bible or in the teachings of the church. There is no room for questioning these ideas. If you want to live a good life, you must follow the commandments, period.

The corporate right has an idea of the good life that centers on money. They believe in economic growth and prosperity. This idea gives each individual far more autonomy than the religious right does: you can live a good life by spending your money on whatever luxuries you choose.

These two groups form the alliance that is the basis of the Republican party today. It is an odd alliance, since the religious right should know very well that you cannot serve both God and Mammon.

Like the corporate right, the left has an ideal of autonomy, but it has as much to do with your lifestyle as with how you spend your money. But autonomy alone is not enough: the left says people should be able to choose their lifestyle, but it doesn't give us any clue about which lifestyle is better or worse to choose.

I believe that the ideal for a post-scarcity economy must involve developing and using our capabilities as fully as possible. Rather than the corporate right's ideal of autonomy in how you spend your money, we need an ideal of autonomy based on how you spend your time. We need to move toward simpler living both for environmental reasons and because we would be better people if we spent less of our time making and spending money and more time exercising to improve our health, more time raising our children, and more time developing and using our talents.

The ideal of the religious right made sense in pre-modern times, when economic life was unchanging and traditional values were unchanging.

The ideal of the corporate right made sense during the early industrial revolution, when most people lived in poverty and there was an urgent need for economic growth and more money.

The new ideal of the left must make sense in a future when we have enough economically and when a better life depends on what you do rather than on how much you consume.

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