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Arthur C. Brooks
As Gandhi taught: “Live simply, so others may simply live.” Seized upon by disgruntled Western progressives, over the decades it has become a bumper sticker slogan. Lately it has seen a surge of popularity in the academic worlds I inhabit among those who harbor a particularly Utopian vision of a post-Bush Age.
Despite the annoying sanctimoniousness of the “live simply” admonishment, it might seem the sentiment is useful and worth remembering. If we all consumed less and enjoyed more nonmaterial things, we would leave more for others–especially those around the world who have so little, right?
Dead wrong, actually. Indeed, it is one of the most dangerous misconceptions of our time. It is based on the mistaken view that we live in a worldwide zero-sum game where if I have more it means someone, someplace, must have less.
If we all truly “lived simply,” we would help countries around the world regress to the economic levels of Japan in 1950, China in 1990, or sub-Saharan Africa today.
Our lives are not simple. We consume a complicated array of products from every part of the globe, from the Chinese-built computer I am writing this on to the Guatemalan shirt you are wearing. This fact, a cause of great regret for proponents of simplicity, is actually the promise of an escape from brutish poverty for many people around the world.
Consider China, which as recently as 1990 had a per capita gross domestic product of less than $400 and where 38 out of every 1,000 babies died before their first birthday. By 2006, average income had more than tripled and infant mortality had fallen to 23 out of 1,000. China alone has accounted for over 75% of poverty reduction in the entire developing world, according to the World Bank. It has done so largely through the complicated world of consumption and international trade.
From 1990 to 2006, the value of Chinese exports to the U.S. increased by more than 1,000 percent in real terms, representing literally millions of export-fueled jobs. All the Chinese products you buy might complicate your life, but it is probably giving someone in China the means to support his or her family.
Or consider Latin America, which is America’s fastest-growing regional trading partner. Since passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (loathed by simple-life advocates everywhere) and the expansion of trade with South America in the 1990s, Latin America has nearly been able to meet the U.N. Millennium Development Goal of universal primary education, and child mortality rates have been cut by nearly half.
The story is the same for many parts of the world, including East Asia and the former Soviet bloc. To find a part of the world untouched by our ravenous consumerism, we need to look at sub-Saharan Africa, where trade has stayed largely unchanged as a percentage of GDP since 1980. Over the last four decades–as the rest of the world developed in tandem with our complicated, consumeristic ways–Africa has languished. Indeed, in 1970 Africa represented 15% of the world’s poor; today, that continent contains 68%.
If we all truly “lived simply,” we would help countries around the world regress to the economic levels of Japan in 1950, China in 1990 or sub-Saharan Africa today. If we piously refused to purchase new clothes and televisions, we would create truly lethal unintended consequences for the world’s most vulnerable people.
Of course, those in the world’s poorest corners also need more than trade and jobs to develop completely. They need freedom and education, too–among other things. But a full stomach and a thriving child are a good start to a better life, and this requires demand for what the poor can provide–demand from those of us blessed with abundance.
There are most assuredly costs associated with our complicated, consumeristic lives: to the natural environment, to nonrenewable resources and perhaps to our souls. But none of these costs warrant a death sentence for the working people in the nations that sell us cheap goods and services. Should we pretend that the world’s poor actually benefit from our return to simplicity? Rather, what we need are continual attempts to produce, trade and prosper in ways that are in sync with our core values.
To “live simply” would not allow others to simply live. It would turn back the clock to a time when, unheard and unseen, the world’s poorest would simply perish.
Arthur C. Brooks is a visiting scholar at AEI.
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