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Does anything you do really matter?

We came across this Opinion piece in the NYT recently, and thought it deserved a combo platter of criticism and praise.

The thesis of the piece is that the problems we face are so great, that individual contributions to the solution are virtually meaningless. As a lawyer for the Environmental Defense Fund in the US, Gernot Wagner is really focused on the environmental problems we face. But his logic could also be applied to the other social, economic, and political challenges we face, all of which are vastly beyond the ability of one individual to fix.

He literally says “Sadly, individual action does not work.” Worse, he says that individual action taken allows us to feel self-satisfied, like we’ve done our thing and the rest is up to everybody else. Rather, he believes the solution lies in collective action, in us banding together to force change in regulation and pricing because free markets aren’t free until people or companies have to pay the full cost of their actions, which they don’t now.

We’ll come back to the free-markets argument in a minute, but let’s deal with the first half of his thesis. It’s at the core of what we’re trying to advocate at Citizen Capitalism. If we can create a culture of individual responsibility, where our choices are conscious and reflect the understanding that we impact others, then the world will be a better place. It doesn’t start with telling other people what they have to do, it starts with each of us saying “the change starts with me”.

Wagner goes on to say “getting people excited about making individual sacrifices is doomed to fail”. This, friends, cries out for a reframing of the definition of sacrifice. You could live your life selfishly as the biggest environmental, social or political sluggo on the face of the planet. But you don’t (or if you do, boy are you reading the wrong blog). You make choices in your life that not only benefit you, but benefit others. Otherwise, you’re a sociopath (again, this is the wrong blog for you). So you already practice the principle of conscious choice-making. You might just need to apply that principle more often, and with a growing awareness of impacts you might not have considered before.

So that’s the micro part of the argument. Change starts with each of us, but it doesn’t stop with each of us. We need to do our part AND help others do theirs. Fair enough.

So let’s get back to the macro-argument, that free markets aren’t free, because Wagner makes a really good point here. He asserts that markets are only free (a desired state for us capitalists) when everyone, companies and citizens, pays the full price for his or her actions. And our favourite line: “Everything else is socialism” Ah, the “S” word—that oughta stoke some fires. But it’s true. If my actions, whether environmental, political, or social, inflict costs on somebody else (economists call these externalities) aren’t we living in a socialist state? Shouldn’t I have the freedom to do whatever I want, within the bounds of laws and morality, as long as I pay the cost of it? Or, the reverse, should I have the freedom to make choices that create costs for others?

We don’t pay full price for anything because we don’t pay for the cost of the environmental, social or political impact we generate. Granted, some of those costs are pretty difficult to put a price tag on, but make no mistake, somebody is paying them. No, actually, we all are. And we’re collectively going broke doing it—there isn’t a government anywhere in the Western world, at any level, that isn’t in deep financial trouble. Don’t you think those two things are linked?

Lest you don’t, here’s a simple illustration. Trillions of our dollars evaporated in the 2008 financial crisis because a few greedy money folks thought they out-smarted the regulations. Did any of them go to jail. Nope. In fact, they’re mostly making more money now than they did then.

Ok, that’s a dramatic example of a few people misbehaving with huge consequences for the rest of us. But the reverse is true too—many people are making small daily choices that when rolled up have huge negative impact on everybody.

That has to change. And change starts with me.

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