The Economics of Enough

by Dr. Meir Tamari

Almost every moral issue in economics and in business seems to flow from the lack of distinction between wants and needs. Needs are relatively few and in most societies are satisfied without recourse to immorality and crime. However wants are almost unlimited and in the words of the Rabbis “one has a hundred coins but always wants two hundred.”

Economic wants represent a human lust which, while essential for existence and development, is the most powerful of all the impulses of mankind. Sex, the rabbis commented, is satisfied by abstinence and becomes voracious with feeding, while with money, in contrast, the less one has the more one wants, and the more one has, the more one wants. It is this power and insistence which, as often as not, cannot always be satisfied by normal and ethical means. Judaism has fenced it in, therefore, with an array of injunctions and commandments (mitzvot) presenting a framework with which the economic urge may be exploited without immorality or theft. These mitzvot limit this exploitation, and in so doing, teach the ideal that less is better than more. This is not an idealization of poverty, which is foreign to Judaism (all the patriarchs were wealthy men, in contrast to the founders of most other religions who saw poverty as a spiritual enhancement.) It is simply an acceptance of the limitations that are essential for human morality. When the Patriarch Jacob sent gifts to his brother Esau, the latter accepted them even though he boasted of his wealth – more is better than less. Jacob, replying to his brother’s offer, insisted “I have enough.”

Perhaps the current worldwide concern over ecology may serve as an example of the importance of this concept of enough in the fields of business and economic morality.

The basic question here is the need to find a balance between the legitimate use of natural resources for the creation of wealth and the regulation of all methods which disturb or damage the property, health or aesthetic pleasure of others. These include waste and wanton destruction of the animal, plant and aquatic world.

A Search for Balance

This search for balance presents both the ethical and economic problems of ecology. Economic problems flow primarily from the fact that natural resources are limited. One cannot simply avail oneself of other resources or remove oneself from the proximity of the damage or disturbance caused by someone else’s economic activity. The value of preventing damage or promoting the ecological welfare of society has to be gauged against the potential benefits to be earned from economic activity. Therefore, in all discussions regarding the environment, this cost has to be balanced against the potential benefits. The individual corporation has to consider the ecological costs suffered by the community or by individuals as part of its production of goods and services. Society has to weigh the benefits of jobs created, goods or services provided, against the pollution to the air, water, or the ozone layer, all of which affect the quality of life. All environmental restrictions present a cost that must be borne by somebody. And from a moral dimension one needs, over and above paying for it, to prevent damage being done to other people’s property either at the individual, communal or international level.

Economic Growth

Morally, economic growth of the individual and society would have to be limited in order to provide the ecological balance desired. It is only a society that acknowledges the “economics of enough” with the resultant limits to consumption and to growth, which will be able to provide protection against environmental damage. This “economics of enough” means that limitations will be placed on consumption, on pollution and on the waste of limited fossil and other fuels. There has to be a review of technological advances so that only those which are of limited damage to the environment will be allowed.

This Jewish restraint on economic growth becomes clear if we examine the law concerning the towns of the Levites. The Bible tells us that the Levites, who did not have a tribal share in the land of Israel, were given certain towns as their property, dispersed amongst all the other tribes. These towns included not only the inhabited areas, but also farm land and open spaces. The halakha required that land be allocated at the outset into green belts, farm land and urban areas. The Rambam ruled that the same applied to all towns in the Land of Israel. In other words, the growth of the town was limited to the regional plan drawn up which left areas for all the various activities but restricted the right of townsmen to change the use or designation of these strips. The townsmen did not have the right to destroy green belts in order to provide for expansion. Such expansion would require establishment of a new village or town. This would mean that tourist facilities, new industrial plants, highways etc. may have to be relocated in order to provide for the retention of the original town or village. This has important implications for modern urban planning beyond just the question of ecology. It seems that the Torah would restrict urbanization to small units. This would result in a close-knit society where there was more concern for the individual than is common in large cities today. It also preserved open areas, scenic beauty and pure air.

This kind of Jewish urban policy places a limitation on economic growth even though such growth would provide financial benefits to society. It must be remembered that Judaism does not recognize unlimited private property rights, therefore it cannot accept unlimited public growth in view of the moral social costs involved.

Judaism is an action-oriented system rather than a spiritual one and a community- oriented system rather than one that aims at the promotion of special individuals. Therefore it is not surprising that our concern for the environment could not be allowed to remain in the domain of pious exhortations or religious teaching, but was immediately translated into legislative action. Legislation protecting the environment cannot work, however, unless people are convinced that they must pay the cost. At the same time the absence of legislation means, human nature being what it is, that environmental talk will remain lust that.

Community Rights

The right of eminent domain which the community has in Jewish Law, means that the Halakha is able to protect society from damage. In Jewish law, smoke, noise and smell are considered to be the major forms of ecological damage. Zoning laws preventing them have been a Jewish phenomenon ever since the earliest times. The Mishnah tells us that certain areas sited at determined distances and locations are to be set aside for activities considered to be detrimental.

Not only are individuals or firms liable for damage done to the environment, but they have to take precautions not to cause such damage. Maimonides rules that one may not cause damage even on the understanding that you will pay to repair it later. Naturally, the costs incurred by the introduction of technological progress or the necessity for relocation to minimize pollution have to be borne by the entrepreneurs. There is, as it were, a tax to be paid to protect society.

The rabbis saw in the eternal search for “more” the cause of the Flood which destroyed the world during the days of Noah. It is difficult to believe that the following insights, so applicable to our own days, should have been written some 2000 years ago and can explain so cogently how “more is always better; than less” can lead to perversion, immorality and crime.

The generations which preceded the Flood became concerned that, with the growth in population, both human and animal, there would be insufficient natural resources for everybody. Not only would this lead to strife and ever scarcer economic goods but it would lead to degeneration of all species of life. So they instituted strict birth control and the search for non-procreative sex. Even the animal world was perverted so as to limit growth and maintain pure strains. When this was insufficient they began to steal, to rob and to kill each other, which ultimately led to the Flood.
Dr. Tamari is the former chief economist of the Office of the Governor at the Bank of Israel, and the founder of the JCT Center for Business Ethics and Social Responsibility.