The Theory of Limited Good

Last week’s post was on precedence. This entry stays with the theme, looking at how cultures limit, or fail to limit, precedence. While I want to start out looking at peasant societies, these ideas have application for understanding our own world, here and now.

The theory of limited good comes from economic anthropology and peasant studies. According to the theory, members of peasant societies believe that there is only so much “good” in the world, and that we all compete with each other for access to those things. “Good” here means all the good things in life, but mostly money and “luck.” This “good” is therefore physical and metaphysical all at once.

George M. Foster‘s original theory (1965) focused on small-scale societies, like farming villages. He argued that peasants believed in “limited good” and were therefore more resistant to strong stratification and hierarchy. Because their values require wealth redistribution for members to gain power and status (precedence, remember?) within the group, such societies keep everyone poor. With all this redistribution, no one can manage to accumulate and retain wealth.

In these groups, individual wealth accumulation is prevented by cultural mechanisms; often wealth is traded for other forms of social status. So, for example, someone who wants to become a leader may need to host a festival for everyone in the village and all their kin. The future leader might be called on to use his wealth, and even borrow wealth from his social network, to do things that benefit the whole group. Thus, redistribution prevents strong social stratification. Leadership comes at the cost of, not because of, wealth.

Culture, Red in Tooth and Claw

But, when we apply the basis of this theory to more complex societies (that’s us, among others), we step away from the original context. In small-scale societies, these behaviors work to prevent any one person from having too much.

Members of traditional societies who show off how much more they have than others might be accused of witchcraft or other kinds of “evil.” Conspicuous consumers are, effectively, charged with some kind of antisocial behavior. In these small-scale groups, accumulating wealth actually works against other forms of social status.

A different kind of  belief in “limited good” is also a part of complex societies. In times of economic stress, where access to resources is strained, the belief that there is “not enough for everyone” acts in opposition to the idea that each of us can, by doing our part, create a situation where the sum total of wealth is increasing.

We know these cliches:

  • When someone succeeds, it’s because someone else fails.
  • Life is a competition.
  • There’s only so much to go around.
  • If I get a bigger piece of the pie, someone else gets less.

Apple PieThese are incomplete ideas, true only in limited circumstances. They are also cliches that people believe, and use as the basis for decisions. When we’re stuck in situations where “good” becomes more limited, we are more likely to behave in ways that don’t increase the whole, but only increase our share by taking from others. In other words, when things get tough, we use it to justify antisocial behavior.

For example, when the people who make decisions in financial institutions move from making money by making loans to people trying to grow their own wealth (and thus the economy as a whole) and toward direct profit-taking by increasing fees or by making loans that benefit themselves more than their customers, they are assuming that there is “limited good” and increasing their share, instead of the whole. They are engaging in the same behavior that, in the peasant society above, would cause them to be accused of antisocial behavior.

Redistribution Isn’t a Dirty Word

In other words, modern cultures in general, and America in specific, lack many of these small-scale economic-leveling mechanisms. We do, however, have some big ones.

Taxes serve to redistribute “good.” This includes rule of law, infrastructure that provides better opportunities to participate in the economy, and public education that does the same. Yet the truth is, all of these things also increase the economy as a whole.

The core argument of the Tea Party seems to be that such leveling mechanisms are, in fact, unnecessary (and illegal)…that wealth accumulation is an inherent good, a “right” carried by all people at all times. Because of redistribution’s association with Socialism in the popular consciousness (it’s not the same thing), it has become something of a dirty word.

There are others ways that “good” is distributed. For example, many of the things that are trappings of “middle class” culture are amazingly expensive. Both a BMW and a first-class education can be used to mark, and compete for, social status. They are both examples of “costs” of being higher social status. In that sense, they are not too different from the festivals of the peasant society. They are a way of trading one form of social status for another.

The original theory of limited good tried to show how traditional societies limited the accumulation of wealth, and why. Yet we still practice trading one form of social status for another. Many people in America do believe that the accumulation of wealth for its own sake is antisocial. These concepts hardly limit themselves to traditional societies. We’re still trying to wrestle with them, every day.


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