Empathy, democracy and the economy

Democracy is lost unless we re-structure our economies, and re-structuring our economies requires a new system based on different values. This is the sixth article in our series on empathy and transformation.

Edgar Cahn
10 September 2013

Credit: Shutterstock. All rights reserved.

When one-tenth of the US population controls 80 per cent of national wealth there can be only one conclusion: democracy is on life support in America. Democracy means nothing if money can buy elections, pay lobbyists to buy officials, and disable public institutions through cronyism and corruption. Whatever birthright we enjoy as citizens is expropriated when delegated to people whose decision-making authority is on sale to the highest bidder.

The finance industry is thriving once again while disparities in income and opportunity have grown exponentially. Over one-fifth of all children in the United States now live below the poverty line. Manufacturing jobs have been replaced by service sector jobs that rarely pay a living wage. Decades of regressive economic policies have stymied the middle class. Organized labor - historically a crucial way for the working class to mobilize - has steadily declined.  Speech may still be free, but money talks even louder in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s decision on Citizens United. The political system rests on an economy that concentrates wealth and power. It’s a gloomy picture, for sure, but what does it have to do with the subject of empathy?

The answer is that democracy is lost unless we re-structure our economies, and re-structuring our economies requires a new operating system based on different values. That’s what empathy provides, not in its “thin” form as a vague appreciation of peoples’ feelings, but in its “thick” form that commits everyone to foster the wellbeing of others, and do no harm.

At present, our economic systems afford us only the narrowest view of human potential. They deny us the ability to see people for what they truly are. We define others not by what they have but by what they lack. Rather than examine what they can offer, we categorize vast swaths of our society by what they need. And the harm that is done to others through poverty, inequality and pollution is dismissed as a trade-off against economic efficiency and growth. If empathy is the ability to understand the perspectives of others and use that understanding to guide one’s actions, then it’s safe to conclude that our current economies inculcate the opposite.

What would change if the economy was re-structured with empathy at the center? First of all there would be a different set of priorities: raising and educating children; taking care of the elderly; advancing social justice; preserving the planet; and creating vibrant neighborhoods. Work that supports these priorities would be fully valued and remunerated. This is work that many of us are ready to provide, yet for the most part it is not properly valued in market economies.

In markets prices vary according to supply and demand. If something is scarce the price is high. If something is abundant the price is low. If it is truly abundant, then from a market viewpoint, it is worthless. So the price system doesn’t value the capacities we possess to contribute to each other’s health and fulfillment. These capacities are not scarce, though they may be unequally distributed among people who have different amounts of time available for caring, work and activism in their communities.

Secondly, the importance of money would decline, to be replaced by currencies that value things like time, care and service – the things that enable us to put empathy into action. In our current system, money serves a wide variety of functions: as a means of exchange, a store of value, and a predictor of influence and power. As the last five years of recession have demonstrated, our reliance on money leaves us dependent on those who hold the bulk of it, and makes us vulnerable to sudden changes in the credit supply and the wider financial system.

That’s why we need a different set of currencies that are less vulnerable to these fluctuations, and that are more equally distributed among the population. Such currencies define value by reference to things other than financial assets, and they recognize that every human being has something of importance to contribute to the wellbeing of others in the creation of a better world - currencies of empathy if you will. Unlike money, empathy is limitless. Hoarding it brings no rewards and provides no incentives. Its value is unlocked only when empathy is freely shared.

This is especially important in a democracy, where the responsibilities of citizenship and the capacities required to meet them must be equally distributed throughout the population. If we are to self-govern as much of our lives as possible, then we need currencies that value public goods and reward the energy and potential that exists in every individual. Only then can we fix our schools, build green and safe communities, care for each-other, preserve public lands, and remove the influence of money from politics and decision-making.

The good news is that communities around the world are already developing a variety of local and international currencies to compensate for the failures of traditional monetary systems: consider bitcoins, Germany’s chiemgauer, and the bartering systems that communities have long relied on to get by in hard times. Among the most widely used of these currencies are time credits, in which one hour given is exchanged for one hour received.  

Employed by time-banking systems worldwide, time credits value all hours equally: one hour spent helping someone else or working in the community is equal to one credit, regardless of its market value. In these systems the person who received the help gives back by helping someone else, triggering a reciprocal pay-it-forward system of transactions. In contrast to existing, monetary currencies that encourage the hoarding of wealth and speculation, time-banking affords a route back to equality and stability.

As of today, TimeBanks  are operational in more than 300 communities in the USA and across another 80 countries. Among their many achievements they have enabled juvenile offenders to learn about restorative justice by serving on Youth Courts in Washington DC and other cities; helped to re-stitch the social fabric of inner-city neighborhoods like the Gorbals in Glasgow, by supporting libraries, theatres and other collective assets; and been used by thousands of schoolchildren to help other pupils master basic reading and other skills.

I have seen time credits exchanged between a paraplegic chess player and seven teenagers who were learning the game on separate boards; and between a wheelchair-bound woman on oxygen and a veteran with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in Philippi, West Virginia, who wanted to teach a seeing-eye dog how to be comfortable around a wheelchair. These examples capture the economy of empathy in action.

Time-Banking will not eliminate all economic inequalities, nor can empathy construct a new economy by itself: that must be given shape through concrete institutions.  But by building these institutions from a different base of values and relationships, empathy, sharing and co-operation can nurture an economy in which everyone can define themselves as valuable contributors, whatever their work and however much money they possess.

An economy based on empathy is one that values all forms of citizen engagement and all people equally, and there is no better basis for democracy than that. 

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