Education for Simple Living
Simple living involves knowing how to live well in time. It involves knowing what is important in life, and knowing how to appreciate that which is given to us, be it another person, or a spring day. It involves becoming centered and often independent of the judgments of others.
It is clear that our schools do not equip children to live lives of simplicity and to resist the hectic, frenetic, alternatives to which they are pulled. One might say that such is not the job of the schools; that this is the work of the family or of religious education. But the idea that the schools can somehow be neutral between different ways to live is a myth. It rests on thinking of schools as abstractions, rather than as real-life places that children attend for seven or eight hours a day, for twelve or sixteen or twenty years.
So much of what goes on is schools is instrumental, so much of it is directed at equipping students to succeed or at least to find their place within our socio-economic order, that schools inevitably are transmission belts for the values and perspectives that sustain the dominant way of life.
In our competitive social world where there is a powerful semi-consensus on what success means and a limited number of successful life-places, parents look to their child's school years and school performance as decisive factors in determining how he or she will fare "in life." And the schools, aware of the key role that they play in society's central game, see themselves in a similar fashion. Thus how can it be otherwise than that the entire schooling experience, including that part which occurs within the home, will both implicitly and explicitly endorse the central terms of that competition. In particular, what is affirmed is the dominant conception of the good life that is operative within the social competition.
Yet at the same time what happens in schools is complex and multi-dimensional. And insofar as people break free from opulence versions of the American Dream and find their way back to the simple living version of that dream, it is often things that happened in school that enables them to shift direction.
Rather than lambasting schools, it is useful then to consider those things that sometimes happen in schools that do contribute to a person's ability to form a life of graceful simplicity.
From this perspective, here are some of the best things schools can accomplish:
A love of books.
I put this first for several reasons. If one loves books, if one loves to read, if in a family, people read to each other -- then a foundation has already been laid for a simple life of great pleasure, at little expense. Entering into this world, provided that one has learned to love what is within it, and has developed the appreciative skills required to fully participate in it -- is to have the key to the central repository of human wealth.
Reading good books can serve as the central emblem of a life of simplicity. If one wants to look for a single operative criterion of whether or not schools are succeeding or failing in their central task (as understood from the perspective of the simple life) then look to whether or not a love of reading has been developed.
An aesthetic sensibility.
The presence and appreciation of beauty is central to the good life. Schools at their best offer an alternative to the larger society, as intentionally crafted environments designed to affect the development of children in beneficial ways that will not be forthcoming from the general social environment. Thus, within a culture in which there is limited beauty and limited aesthetic sensibility, it becomes especially important for the school to focus on beauty and creativity.
For some, schools are the first and perhaps only place where children are exposed to the finest in art, music, sculpture and poetry. Yet as we all know, exposure and the development of an aesthetic sensibility are not one and the same. Often enough such appreciation courses can be deadly -- and it remains a central challenge to educators to master their craft in this area.
An ability to create things of beauty
Central to the development of an aesthetic sensibility is the development of one's own creative abilities. Within the broad rubric of arts and crafts, ranging from fine arts and music to carpentry and even cooking, it is not asking too much of schools to require that all students emerge having attained some degree of excellence in at least one form of creative endeavor.
Being able to produce something of beauty is among the greatest of capabilities. With it one can always contribute to the richness of the lives of others; with it one can always be deserving of the esteem and respect of others; with it one can always undertake activities of unique joyousness; with it one is provided with something of a vaccine against a shoddy materialism and instead becomes a participant in the development of a general economic demand for things of beauty and thus a participant in the central mechanism that will enrich our entire society.
The choice of school curriculum is always a matter of trade-offs -- there is only so much time in the school day. And if I am urging something as contrary to current practice as preparing skilled artists, or wood workers, or cooks -- then what in the school curriculum would I cut back on in order to expand the development of creative capabilities?
This is an extremely difficult question to answer. My own view is that we have swung too far in the direction of what stared as an effort to keep up with the Soviets when Sputnik was launched in the 1960's, and what we emphasize today in the effort to stay a technological step ahead of the Japanese. If I had to choose between giving greater emphasis to math and science or greater emphasis to the arts and humanities, I would choose the latter. To those that worry about international competitiveness, it is worth considering that for the overwhelming bulk of the population, marginal differences in their scientific and mathematical prowess may make little difference in determining whether or not American science and engineering makes cutting edge breakthroughs.
The broader point here is not these specifics. It is simply that when you ask the average parent what they wish for their children in life, they mostly say that they want them to be happy. If we accept this as legitimate, even if not complete, the central question that faces us is whether we believe that happiness is to be attained through successfully navigating our existing socio-economic competition, or whether we believe it is to be found in better equipping children to find happiness in a qualitatively rich form of simple living.
What is telling of our need to approach these questions together, politically, is that all too often we can see the limitations of the existing framework, but not be prepared to send our own children down any path other than the ones most conventionally understood as leading to success. In part this may be a lack of courage, but in part it emerges from the genuine concern that the price may be too high for our children if as isolated individuals, we and they break with the mainstream.
Simple Living and American Dreams
We entirely mistake our own history if we think of simple living as some recent fad. The idea of simple living has always been part of the American psyche; sometimes central, sometimes only a minor theme, but always present. From the earliest days of the American experience there have been advocates of simple living who challenged consumerism and materialism.
Simple living, especially in America, has meant many things.
For Christians the central inspiration for a life of simplicity has been the life of Jesus. In the hands of the Puritans, this emerged as a life of religious devotion, a lack of ostentation, and plenty of hard work. It was certainly not a leisure expansion movement, as it is today. Nor was simple living a matter of individual choice; sumptuary laws invoked the power of the state to restrict consumption display, and economic life was regulated to limit the role of greed in human affairs.
In the hands of the Quakers, the concept of the simple life underwent an evolution. For the Puritans, at least part of the motivation for sumptuary laws was to prevent those in the lower classes from putting on the manners of those above them; among Quakers, the restrictions on display and consumption became more widely applicable. Most importantly, the pursuit of luxurious consumption was linked to a broad range of injustices and social problems, including alcoholism, poverty, slavery, and ill treatment of the Indians. Here perhaps are the origins of a radical politics of plain living, the belief that if people adopted the simple life, all of society would be transformed.
The key Quaker theorist of the simple life was John Woolman. Central to Woolman's thought was the recognition that people could be "necessitated to labour too hard." He focused of the plight of those who did not own their own land but rented it from large estates. If the rent was too high, the amount of labor required of the poor would oppress them and draw them away from the proper affairs of life. But rent was an intermediate concern, what was really at issue was the extent to which one person would be required to labor so that another might have superfluous luxuries. Woolman wrote, "Were all superfluities, and the desires of outward greatness laid aside" then "moderate labour with the blessing of Heaven, would answer all good purposes . . . and a sufficient number have time to attend on the proper affairs of civil society."
Thus, he maintained that "Every degree of luxury of what kind soever and every demand for money inconsistent with divine order hath some connexion with unnecessary labour." Woolman called on his listeners to follow the example of Jesus in simple food and dress. He saw their desire for luxurious consumption as the core motive which resulted in the practice "of fetching men to help to labour from distant parts of the world, to spend the remainder of their lives in the uncomfortable conditions of slaves." He also identified selfishness as the cause of past wars, telling us to "look upon our treasures, and the furniture of our houses, and the garment in which we array ourselves, and try whether the seeds of war have nourishment in these our possessions, or not." Were Woolman alive today, it is likely that he would extend his critique, arguing that excessive consumption, and the desire for it, is at the root of both the drug and environmental problems we face. Indeed, Woolman would probably have been receptive to the idea that the harsh poverty of many Third World countries emerges from the excessive consumption of the rich nations.
In the mid 1700's, in the years prior to the Revolution, the ideas of simple living and democratic government were intertwined. For many of the leaders of the Revolution, however, the ideal was not the simple life of Jesus, but the simple life of the self-governing citizens of ancient Greece and Rome. Key figures in the revolutionary period, in particular Samuel Adams, were deeply concerned about the relationship between our political health and the individual pursuit of luxury. The rebirth of democracy in the world brought with it an interest in the ancient Greek and Roman experiments, and why they disappeared. There was a concern (as there is today) with the virtue of office holders. Genuine democracy seemed incompatible with too great an absorption in getting rich. There was great fear of the corrupting influences of unbridled commercialism. When the colonists boycotted British goods, it was not just a tactic of the independence movement; Britain was viewed as The Great Satan, exporting the corruptions of capitalism.
In their correspondence, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson assessed the prospects for building a non-materialist society. Jefferson emphasized civic virtue, and looked to public policy, in particular state-supported schools and values education as the foundation of such a society. Adams viewed this as unrealistically "undertaking to build a new universe." He himself feared economic growth, however, and argued for preventing both extreme poverty and extravagant riches. Both men feared rather than celebrated boundless economic opportunity.
Benjamin Franklin's views on these questions are also worth noting; they too have a contemporary echo. In Franklin we have an unusual mixture: the espousal of frugality, hard work, and restrained consumption as the vehicles for getting ahead, as the central patterns of behavior that will lead to wealth. Thus, in the Preface to Poor Richard's Almanac, which was reprinted in fourteen languages under the title, "The Way to Wealth,"
Franklin writes, "But dost thou love Life, then do not squander Time,; for that's the stuff Life is made of." And "If Time be of all Things the most precious, wasting Time must be, as Poor Richard says, the greatest Prodigality." Franklin was concerned with how the average person might remain free in his own life, his own master. "Employ thy Time well, if thou meanest to gain Leisure." He warns of the perils of spending and in particular of borrowing. The great thing is to save. "We must add Frugality, if we would make our Industry more certainly successful. A Man may, if he knows not how to save as he gets, keep his Nose all his Life, to the Grindstone, and die not worth a Groat at last. . . If you would be wealthy . . . think of Saving as well as Getting." Note that here Franklin is advocating simple living as a means to future wealth; quite a different reason than those than animated Woolman.
Franklin warned that the dangers of excessive consumption are easily missed. And he was quite demanding in what he viewed as "excessive." He wrote, "You may think perhaps, that a little Tea, or a little Punch now and then, Diet a little more costly, Clothes a little finer, and a little Entertainment now and then, may be no great Matter; but remember what Poor Richard says, Many a Little makes a Mickle. . . . A small Leak will sink a great Ship."
He continued, "The artificial Wants of Mankind thus become more numerous than the Natural. . . When you have bought one fine Thing, you must buy ten more, that your Appearance many be all of a Piece." "'Tis easier to suppress the first Desire, than to satisfy all that follows it." "What Use is this Pride of Appearance, for which so much is risked, so much is suffered? It cannot promote Health, or ease Pain; it makes no Increase of Merit in the Person, it creates Envy, it hastens Misfortune."
Franklin rails against going into debt. Credit cards would have seemed to him the instruments of our undoing. "What Madness must it be to run in Debt for these Superfluities! . . . think what you do when you turn in Debt; you give to another Power over your Liberty." "Preserve your Freedom; and maintain your Independency: Be Industrious and free; be frugal and free."
Often in American history, the mode of response to the dominant commercial culture has been utopian, not in the sense of speculation on utopia, but in the actual establishment of a community wherein this dominance by the economic is overcome. Utopian thought has a long and rich history, much of it European. It was in America, both before and after the founding of the United States, that the impulse to go ahead and just create that better world was the strongest.
Though the formation of these communities was not unique to the American experience, the abundance and constancy of utopian communities does appear to be distinctly American. Indeed there has not been a single year in the history of the United States without communes. One recent study of American communes concluded,
. . .the extent and continuity of the communal phenomenon had no equal outside the United States. . . .in modern times the United States is the only place where voluntary communes have existed continuously for 250 years.
Two features of these utopian communities are particularly noteworthy. First, with few exceptions, they were communes. Property was typically held in common, and sometimes income was pooled. And second, they were typically not mere sites of residence, but work sites as well. The community collectively owned land and capital, and the community both provided for itself and collectively produced for the outside world. Thus, virtually all of these communities challenges the boundaries between household and work place that had begun to emerge in the seventeenth century. And in doing so as a community, through the holding of the common property of the unified home/work site, they were re-establishing the extended establishment-family. In a sense, these communities could be seen as large establishment-households.
The uninterrupted history of utopian communes throughout American history, speaks of an ongoing practical discourse that seeks through actual life experiments to break the boundaries between home and economy and to replace, within the economic realm, harsh marketplace relations (of worker/master, of owner/employer) with a simpler life within a "circle of affection." In the mid-1800's such communes flourished. In some ways this period prefigured the communes, vegetarianism, nudism and animal rights efforts of the 1960's.
Filled with a sense of adventure and experiment, but of a more individualist bent, was Henry David Thoreau. In Walden he looked about him and saw mostly foolishness -- people not knowing how to grab hold of the gift of life. He revelled in the energy of youth and in its ability to find out what older generations had never seen.
"Practically, the old have no very important advice to give the young, their own experience has been so partial, and their lives have been such miserable failures . . . Here is life, an experiment to a great extent untried by me. . . If I have any experience which I think valuable, I am sure to reflect that this my Mentors, said nothing about."
With words that had echoes of Aristotle he told Americans that our necessities are few, yet we subject ourselves to endless labor. He described a world that had taken the wrong turn. "The twelve labors of Hercules were trifling in comparison with those which my neighbors have undertaken; for they were only twelve and had an end."
Wealth itself is a curse because it enslaves us. "I see young men, my townsmen, whose misfortune it is to have inherited farms, houses, barns, cattle and farming tools; for these are more easily acquired than got rid of." Of most men Thoreau says, "they begin digging their graves as soon as they are born." "Men labor under a mistake. The better part of the man is soon ploughed into the soil for compost." We must take better care of ourselves, of our potentials. "The finest qualities of our nature, like the bloom on fruits, can be preserved only by the most delicate handling. Yet we do not treat ourselves nor one another thus tenderly." We miss that which is best in life. "Most men, even in this comparatively free country, through mere ignorance and mistake, are so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluously coarse labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them."
Yes, the necessities must be met, "for not till we have secured these are we prepared to entertain the true problems of life with freedom and a prospect of success."
But "most of the luxuries, and many of the so called comforts of life and not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind. With respect to luxuries and comforts, the wisest have ever lived a more simple and meager life than the poor."
He tells us that "None can be an impartial or wise observer of human life but from the vantage ground of what we should call voluntary poverty."
The dictates of wisdom call for "a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity and trust."
For Thoreau it is not necessity that enslaves us. Rather we have become our the "slave-drivers" of ourselves, "the slave and prisoner of [our] own opinion of [ourselves]." Once we have satisfied our necessities, rather than laboring for superfluities, it is time to "adventure on life." But few undertake this adventure. Instead, "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." It is from a disease the spirit that Thoreau recoils, one that people may not even be aware of. "A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them . . ."
Thus Thoreau called Americans away from their over-absorption in economic life, from their self-subjugation to a life of toil. Unlike earlier advocates of simple living, he was not calling people to religion or to civic engagement, rather he was calling us as individuals to find our own nature, to define ourselves at a higher level of experience. He called for simple living in order to enable the life of the mind, of art, literature, poetry, philosophy, and an almost reverential engagement with Nature.
Interest in simple living was harder to find in the post Civil War period, but it re-emerged powerfully towards the turn of the century. There was a reaction against materialism, and the hectic pace of urban life. In those days it was Ladies Home Journal (of all things) that led the charge against the dominant materialist ethos. Under a crusading editor, Edward Bok, it served as a guide for those in the middle class seeking simplicity. By 1910, the Journal had a circulation of close to 2 million, making it the largest selling magazine in the world. This period also witnessed a movement of aesthetic simplicity. It was influenced by the English thinkers John Ruskin and William Morris, and recognized that only in a world which appreciated fine crafts would there be jobs for fine craftsmen. It is from this mileau that we have the "mission" furniture, much sought by antique dealers today.
One dimension of the renewed interest in simple living was a "country life" movement which sought to use modern technology to improve country life for the small farmer and to keep young people on the farm. Later, in 1933, the Department of the Interior created a Division of Subsistence Homesteads to resettle the urban and rural poor in planned communities based on "handicrafts, community activities, closer relationships, and cooperative enterprises." About 100 such communities were established, most of them failing in their grand design to replace individualism with "mutualism."
After the Second World War, as after the First, the Civil War and the Revolution, there was a surge in consumption, and simple living receded into the background. But again in the 1960's there was a critique of the affluent life style and a renewed interest in plain living. In the 1970's, with the energy crisis, this merged with a broad environmentalism. Many saw the energy crisis not as an economic or political problem to be overcome, but as an occasion for a spiritual renewal which would turn us away from the rampant materialism of modern life. One of these was President Jimmy Carter.
"We worship self-indulgence and consumption," Carter declared, taking his place in a great American tradition of social criticism. "Human identity is no longer defined by what one does but by what one owns." And like earlier critics, Carter lamented the emptiness of such an existence. "We've discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning."
Carter saw the problem as residing in what he termed "a mistake idea of freedom" -- one in which we advocate "the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others." He called on Americans to unite together in a crusade of energy conservation:
We often think of conservation only in terms of sacrifice. . . solutions to our energy crisis can also help us to conquer the crisis of spirit in our country. It can rekindle a sense of unity, our confidence in the future, and give our nation and all of us individually a new sense of purpose."
This was his so-called "malaise" speech, and while it failed as an effort to transform the national spirit, and certainly failed Carter politically, it did capture well the link between environmental concerns and simple living that many Americans continue to feel today. Carter was followed by the Reagan and Bush administrations in which no similar critique was heard. But now at the turn of the millennium there is renewed interest in simple living, if not in the White House, then at least in the heartland.
This quick historical survey reveals that "simple living" has meant many things. There is an anti-consumptionist core in much American thinking on this subject, but great diversity with respect to the human good and the place of work, religion, civic engagement, nature, literature and the arts. Concern with simple living has been largely apolitical at some times, and at others the heart of a general political and social vision.
Today, when there is once again a great interest in simple living in America, it is mainly an apolitical enthusiasm. Most, though not all, of the literature is of a "how to" variety, offering advice on how to live more rewardingly with less money. The attainment of a simpler, more meaningful life is seen as an individual project, not as a matter of collective politics. In the chapters that follow I will explore the limitations of this individualistic approach and argue for a "politics of simplicity."
This book is about time, work and money. Even as a child, I was aware that these were troubling and confusing matters. They troubled my father and mother, and they confused me.
Between 1943 and 1964, I lived at home with my parents and sisters. During that time, typically six days a week, my father would wake early in the morning. He would put on a white shirt, starched rigid at the Chinese laundry. With that shirt, he would wear a tie, a suit and polished shoes. He would then leave our apartment in the Bronx and travel by subway to Brooklyn (in 1956 he learned to drive and bought his first car). I now know that when he arrived at work, he would take off the shirt, tie, suit and shoes and change into work clothes. He was a blue collar worker, working in a small factory that made women's blouses.
In that factory he worked first as a cutter, then as a marker (the person who figures out how to lay the pattern on the reams of fabric so as to minimize waste) and then as the shop foreman. He always worked overtime, and often on Saturdays. He brought his pay home in a small brown envelope stuffed with tens and twenties. Coming home late, he often ate after the rest of the family had finished, and when he had finished eating, he would tell stories.
Often, they were the stories about what had happened that day, and inevitably he was a modern knight battling against the utter stupidity of the people around him, his boss, his fellow workers, or officials from the union (of which he was a proud member). Sometimes, however, the stories were of another world, the world that he had grown up in.
Born in a small village in Poland, he was the great-grandson of a famous Hassidic rabbi. (Years later, he and I would visit the Library of Congress and work through the several inches of card catalogue devoted to his famous ancestor). In his little corner of the world, he was something of a prince -- always known in his town as the great grandson of Rabbi K. As a youth, he rebelled against his religious background and became an ardent socialist. He was a natural leader and public speaker. By the time he was twenty-one, he had already been elected to public office and had served time as a political prisoner.
As a young man, he came to the United States as a tourist on the Isle de France. He came to visit his father and mother and sister, all of whom had emigrated. He came wearing hand-tailored suits, and planning to return to his life in Poland. He never went back.
At first, I suppose, the transition was not very difficult. There was a vibrant Jewish socialist movement in New York. Everyone spoke Yiddish. There was a Yiddish theater (he sometimes performed), there were Yiddish papers (he sometimes wrote). He met my mother. She taught him English. She too was a socialist. She was also beautiful and a dancer. He had friends; he had relatives; he had ideals; he had a political movement. He lived in Manhattan.
Gradually it all changed. He had never pursued a career, had never even gone to college. He was devoted to the "movement" and took jobs just to earn some money. When I was growing up everything was different. The Depression was over. World War II was over. He was married, had two children and was living in the Bronx. My mother stopped dancing. She took care of the house, and ultimately four children. My father, for the most part, stopped his political activity. There were fewer friends. Mostly, it seemed, life was about making a living and supporting a family. He worked hard. He earned good money. He resented the work and resented what had happened to him. I remember he paid careful attention to how I was doing in school; he used to say, "Work now and you won't have to work later."
One of the great things about my childhood was that I was able to spend my summers with another family. My mother's oldest sister never married. Having no children of her own, she became the extra parent of the children of her younger sisters. She owned a small cottage that was part of a summer cooperative some forty miles north of New York City. For years, my family would spend July at the cottage, and my mother's younger sister and family would spend August. My father chafed at the ambiguous arrangement, feeling neither guest nor owner. Ultimately our family spent the summers in the Bronx. We lived next to a park.
Fortunately, it was arranged that I would continue to spend my summers at the cottage, living with the family of my mother's younger sister. If our income bracket was lower-middle class, theirs was what used to be called "working class." But my uncle wasn't a factory worker like my father, he was an artist. They lived in Greenwich Village and paid $60 a month rent.
My uncle was a bit of a buffoon, but he was also a true magician. He saw the magic in the most ordinary things, and he could awaken you to that magic. He built a tiny frog pond in the woods -- a place to sit on large stones and watch the tadpoles as they grew their legs. The cottage was on a hillside, and he spent a decade, perhaps it was two decades, transporting dirt from the front of the house to the back of the house, so that ultimately there was level ground for a driveway and for a turn-around area. What fun it was to work with him in the August sun, sweating and straining to fill a home-made cart with front-of-the-house dirt. The other kids used to come over just to join in the project.
Around the cottage we had some of the best raspberries that ever grew. And in the July morning sun, we would walk a step or two out the door and gather jewels for our cereal. The cottage had neither phone, nor T.V. nor even radio. It had just one bedroom, and at night we rigged up all sorts of sleeping places and shared what beds and couches we had. Most of the time, we had no car. My aunt was a great cook, and though no one said grace at any meal, there was a kind of pagan reverence at mealtime -- a kind of food worship. It wasn't about overeating, nor was it about being thankful for having food. It was about the food itself -- about how good the bread was, even about how good was the old family knife that my uncle used to cut the bread.
It wasn't all sweetness and light. Both families had their internal problems and considerable craziness. My mother did not work outside the home and for many years neither did my aunt. Both of them suffered from the isolation. And for both of them, money was always an issue. For years, my parents fought about it. And my aunt watched every penny. Indeed, during the summers, she watched everything I ate and made sure that I was not costing more than my parents were contributing for my keep. Indeed, some of the worse moments in the family, some that estranged people for years, turned on the issue of money and property, on who was doing what to whom.
For years I passed between these two families who had gone different routes with respect to work and time and money, both of whom had failed to square the circle. The issues never go away. When I was in college, I did a double major, philosophy and economics. My economic honors thesis was about John Kenneth Galbraith's The Affluent Society. That was twenty-five years ago, and nowadays, struggling over whether to send my eight year old to private or public school, I'm still wrestling with these questions. During those twenty-five years, I have worked in various venues. First as an academic philosopher, then as a Congressional aide and Administrator of the House Budget Committee's Task Force on the Distributive Impacts of Economic Policy, then as a policy analyst in the United States Agency for International Development, now as a peace activist concerned with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and as a research scholar at the University of Maryland's Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy.
I've put all the autobiographical material in the preface; there is none in the text. Yet in its way, the book remains intensely personal. It is about something that many of us continue to feel and continue to struggle with.
In the world today there is considerable confusion and uneasiness about how to live, in particular about those dimensions of life that are sharply impacted by the economic realm. Whether it be questions of overload, of hectic life styles and harried existence, or questions of materialism and consumption, or concerns over interpersonal competition, careerism, over-work, loss of leisure, or loss of security -- there is a widespread skepticism that our fast-paced, mass consumption society represents the highest form of human social development. On the most visceral level, for many of us, something just doesn't feel right. We have lost any semblance of graceful existence, and we sense it, even if we can't articulate it.
As an American, it is the United States and the Western tradition that I know best. Thus, while these issues are of general concern, middle class life in the United States provides the contemporary context for much of the discussion. At the same time this inquiry into simple living should be of particular interest to those in wealthy countries, such as France and Japan, where much that they cherish is under pressure, whether it be two-hour lunches, or the small shops that give life to city streets, or family traditions and bonds that give shape and meaning to the cycle of life. Equally, what is discussed should have special relevance to those in low income countries. We in the United States and in other rich lands have somewhere along the line made a wrong turn. We are not quite sure where it was, in part, because we are not sure where we are. Yet even without fully diagnosing our own situation, there are clear mistakes that we have made that others can learn from.
The subtitle of this book is: "Towards a Philosophy and Politics of Simple Living." The plan of the book is the reverse of what might be expected. I start with politics and end with philosophy. I take it as given that there is a widespread desire for a simpler way of life. Books on simple living abound; magazines regularly feature stories on people trying to "cut back"; there are simple living web-sites and simplicity support groups. Part One concerns itself with how we can move towards simpler lives. Its central thesis is that this is not merely something to be pursued on the personal level. The missing half of the equation is a politics of simplicity. Contrary to those who offer advertising, consumer culture, or even human nature as explanations of why we never feel we have enough, I argue that we have created a very inefficient society -- one in which our very real and legitimate economic needs can only be met at high levels of income. As a result, it is very hard to work less when this means a lower income for your family. This is a problem that we must address as a society, through new ways of thinking about economic and social policy.
In Part Two, the discussion explores elements of a philosophy of simple living. It is concerned with whether or not, at bottom we are simple creatures with simple needs. It considers the nature of genuine wealth. I call for a form of simple living that I term "Graceful Simplicity" and from which the general title of the book emerges. Gracefulness is one of those elusive concepts of great power; like "love" -- it is not easy to say exactly what it is, but we can feel its absence like a pain in the heart. The absence of gracefulness captures much of what is wrong with the way we live -- our sense that things have gotten "hard" whether it be hard to make ends meet, hard times within the family, or the hard edges of our daily interactions. And this is not a problem easily righted. Achieving gracefulness is always a challenge. To live gracefully, in both its inner and outer dimensions, is to have mastered an art.
The central theme of the book is that we cannot think coherently about economic life, unless we situate the economic within a broader conception of human existence. But that is not how we typically think of the economy and economics. We need to go back to basics and ask, "What is an economy for?" -- and this I suggest, cannot be properly answered unless we can also answer some of the questions that once animated philosophers, such as "What is the nature of human happiness?" and "What is true wealth?"
The reader is advised that I allow the discussion to go where it needs to, without paying much respect to familiar boundaries that restrict any given book's subject matter to certain topics but not others. Thus, in the course of the inquiry, I consider diverse matters that are generally not found within the same cover, for instance, Aristotle's views about money, strategies for giving up paid employment, the virtues of Sabbath observance, and the extra financial costs associated with shifting from one to two wage earners. While this may be initially a bit disconcerting, I believe it gives strength to the argument, making it something of a web, tacked down at many points.
Two cross-cutting themes recur throughout the text: the importance of the aesthetic dimension of life, and the central role of the services that people provide for each other. Let me address these in turn.
The choice of the term "graceful simplicity" is intended to give emphasis to the aesthetic dimension -- by this I mean far more than surrounding oneself with beautiful objects. Gracefulness is a way of being in the world, and there is an aesthetics of time that is violated when we live in constant rush, when our lives are a succession of agenda items, when we live like someone racing through the supermarket with a shopping list. To live well means giving things the time they deserve, be it time for the children, one's spouse and lover, one's friends, or the garden.
Taking the time to do things right strengthens our ability to live more simply. Slowing down, achieving a human pace brings out the value in the things we have and the things we do. Living in a beautiful environment, whether it be a beautiful city or the unspoiled countryside has a similar power to liberate us from the imperative to consume. Rather than retreating to the isolated self-created environment of home and possessions, we are drawn towards a shared public space.
Our need for beauty also forms part of the discussion of household budgets, and of our need to escape to places of beauty. In a broader sense, aesthetics is also at the heart of the notion of Sabbath observance -- a cultural/religious construct that seeks to enable all, rich and poor like, a one-day a week opportunity to experience gracefulness within time.
The second theme that laces its way through the book is the issue of services -- the centrality to the good life of the things that people do for one another -- paid or unpaid. The contexts in which this arises are quite distinct. In the final chapter, when taking up the question "What is real wealth?" I respond that real wealth primarily resides in access to the services of others and to modes of activity in which you can be of genuine service as well.
In the Greece of Aristotle, for those who were privileged, it was indeed easier to live gracefully on a modest income, because graceful living rested on three forms of inequality: the subjugation of women, slavery, and vast economic inequality. Thus substantial numbers of people were channeled into lives devoted only to serving the needs and pleasures of others. Even today, often in Third World countries we find that people in the middle class live more gracefully than in the United States, because they can afford to hire servants. Ultimately, this is much of what people seek when the seek riches. Yet in this sense it is logically impossible to have a rich society, because no matter what the economic abundance, it is impossible for everyone to have servants and yet not themselves be servants.
The most significant progress than mankind has made over the last two thousand years is on the level of moral ideas. In thought, and to a considerable extent in practice we have made progress in overcoming the presumption that only a limited set of people possess transcendent potentials. Today everyone affirms their right to seek genuine fulfillment. On one level this is at the heart of many of the contemporary struggles within the household and over the role of women. But it also bears on the issue of living simply, of living in a way that does not give rise to an excessive need for the services of others, and thus, it motivates the search for a form of graceful existence that can be widely attained. This is the primary goal of the politics of simplicity.
Taken more deeply, however, what people need is not merely to be the recipients of services, and to be freed from roles of subservient service providers. In addition, we have a need for the meaning and creative expression that comes through the services we provide to others. Viewed through this lens, a politics of simplicity offers a distinctly different understanding of what the output of an economy is. Rather than thinking of economic output as a gigantic heap of material goods and work as a labor input, instead, the economy is better conceived as the creator (and destroyer) of life roles. The material outputs are the means of our subsistence. What is really important are the forms of service interaction, the forms of work that a society provides.
This in turn circles back to the issue of time. When we give to things and to each other, the time that is deserved, the meaning of service provision is transformed. When we act in haste, whether it be at work or with friends, our activity and ultimately our very being becomes a mere means to some intended outcome. When this is our general way of being in the world, we have failed in what Thoreau identified as the great enterprise -- to make living poetic.
This article is a republishing of the original, published HERE on Tikkun.org, 1996
The Politics of SimplicityBy Jerome M. Segal
The idea of simple living has always been part of the American psyche - sometimes central, sometimes peripheral. Today, it once again resonates strongly throughout our popular culture. Newspapers carry full-page features on personal downsizing, and books on how to live well with less sell hundreds of thousands of copies. A Nexus search for articles on simple living reveals more than fifty entries in just the last two months. Moreover, the interest comes from all parts of society, not just among people on the counter-cultural fringes. For instance, Working Woman, an upscale magazine for the career-minded, with a circulation of close to a million, devoted its entire December issue to how to create a simpler life. There's a Simple Living Network on the Internet, several newsletters, and a host of itinerant lecturers, taped courses, and workshops.
Advocates of simple living are expressing a value orientation that overlaps in important ways with that of the politics of meaning. They reject the idea that the good life is to be found in ever-higher levels of consumption. They argue strongly against rampant careerism and materialism. They opt for less money, less work, more time with friends and loved ones.
Yet, for all that, the simple living enthusiasm is largely apolitical. Much, though not all, of the literature is of a "how-to" variety, offering advice on how to live more rewardingly with less money. Enthusiasts view the attainment of a simpler, more meaningful life as an individual project, not as a matter of collective politics.
In some ways this is to be admired. Far too often, politics on the Left, in its emphasis on the necessity of transforming fundamental structures of the social order, has had a paralyzing effect, the implicit message being that without large-scale, structural change, people can't make significant progress toward a better life.
Nevertheless, the absence of a "politics of simple living" tends to render the simple living movement a solution for the few, irrelevant for the many. Articles about high-flying professional couples who have cut back from $100,000 incomes have limited relevance for the half of American families that live on less than $40,000 a year. Some simple living advocates even adopt an attitude of disdain toward those who are just getting by. For instance, Amy Dacyczyn, the publisher of the Tightwad Gazette Newsletter, writes in a New York Times op-ed of how she feeds her family of eight on $170 a month, and then goes on to talk about "whiners" who are unwilling to give up their expensive lifestyles.
An apolitical simple living movement has a lot of appeal to Americans. It is increasingly a place where those disaffected from our dominant ethos end up. Yet, insofar as it is apolitical, simple living risks being conservative in its political implications, focusing inordinately on the ability and responsibility of the individual for the quality of his/her life. If the simple living idea remains largely individualistic, it will not only be irrelevant to most Americans - in the end it will disappear under the influence of the dominant forces in American life. It is as a form of politics, a politics that is both personal and social, that simple living has enormous potential for deeply and lastingly transforming life in America.
Simple living is not some 1990s fad. Nor is it the product of "foreign" ideologies. David Shi's book, The Simple Life: Plain Thinking and High Living in American Culture (Oxford, 1985), is must reading for those seeking historical grounding. From the earliest days of the American experience, advocates of simple living have challenged consumerism and materialism, although simple living, or "plain living," as it was sometimes called, has meant different things to different groups.
Puritan simplicity focused on religious devotion, a lack of ostentation, and plenty of hard work. It was not a leisure expansion movement. Nor was simple living a matter of individual choice for Puritans; sumptuary laws restricted consumption display, and economic life was regulated to limit the role of greed in human affairs.
In the worldview of the Quakers, simple living was modified somewhat. The sumptuary laws, which to some extent were designed to prevent those in the lower classes from affecting the manners of those above them, came to apply to all members of the community, and John Woolman, a leading Quaker in the mid-1700s, decried excessively lengthy workdays, and cautioned employers not to work others too hard. Indeed, Woolman made a powerful analytic connection in arguing that the institution of slavery emerged from a wrongheaded pursuit of a life of ease and luxury. Here, perhaps, we find the origins of a radical politics of plain living - the belief that if people adopted the simple life, all of society would be transformed.
In the mid-1700s, republican simplicity emerged. Its ideal was not the simple life of Jesus, an image that inspired many Christian advocates of plain living, but the classical writers Cicero, Tacitus, and Plutarch. Central figures of the revolutionary period, in particular Samuel Adams, were deeply concerned about the relationship between our political health and the individual pursuit of luxury. The rebirth of democracy in the world brought with it an interest in the Greek and Roman experiments, and why they disappeared. There was a concern (as there is today) with the virtue of office-holders. Genuine democracy seemed incompatible with too great a preoccupation with getting rich. There was great fear of the corrupting influences of unbridled commercialism. When the colonists boycotted British goods, it was not just a tactic of the independence movement; they viewed Britain as The Great Satan, exporting the corruptions of capitalism.
John Adams and Thomas Jefferson corresponded about what were the bounds of the possible with respect to building a non-materialist society. Jefferson emphasized civic virtue and looked to public policy, in particular state-supported schools and values education. Adams viewed this as unrealistically "undertaking to build a new universe." He himself feared economic growth, and argued for preventing both extreme poverty and extravagant riches.
In the mid-1800s, the transcendentalist writers such as Emerson and Thoreau envisioned a new form of simple living. While the Puritans saw the virtues in opposition to the passions, the transcendentalists had a different vision. On one end of the spectrum, this period prefigured the 1960s, with communes, vegetarianism, nudism, and concern for animal rights. The advocates of transcendental simplicity reversed the Puritan emphasis on work. For Thoreau, one of the chief reasons for lowering consumption levels was that it allowed for greater leisure to do the better things in life - not religious or civic engagement, but the life of the mind, of art, literature, poetry, philosophy, and an almost reverential engagement with nature. In the main, the project of transforming society was put aside in favor of the experiential and experimental communities seeking the simple life for themselves.
Interest in simple living was harder to find in the post-Civil War period, but it re-emerged strong toward the turn of the century. There was a reaction against materialism, individualism, and the hectic pace of urban life. In those days, it was the Ladies Home Journal that led the charge against the dominant materialist ethos. Under a crusading editor, Edward Bok, the magazine served as a guide for those in the middle class seeking simplicity; by 1910, it had a circulation of close to 2 million, making it the largest selling magazine in the world. In this period there emerged a movement of aesthetic simplicity, centered around designers William Morris and Gustav Stickley, and giving rise to so-called "mission" furniture, much sought by antique dealers today.
One dimension of the renewed interest in simple living was a country life movement concerned with using modern technology to improve life for the small farmer and to keep young people on the farm. Later, in 1933, the Department of the Interior created a Division of Subsistence Homesteads to resettle the urban and rural poor in planned communities based on "handicrafts, community activities, closer relationships, and cooperative enterprises." About 100 such communities were established, most of them failing in their grand design to replace individualism with "mutualism."
After World War II, as after the First, the Civil War, and the Revolution, there was a surge in consumption, and simple living receded into the background. But again, in the 1960s, there was a critique of the affluent lifestyle and a renewed interest in plain living. In the 1970s, with the energy crisis, the focus on plain living merged with a growing concern with the environment. The notion of "voluntary simplicity" emerged; the Whole Earth Catalogue, a how-to guide to a simpler, environmentally conscious life, sold briskly, and President Jimmy Carter invited E.F. Schumacher, author of Small is Beautiful, to the White House.
In his now-infamous "malaise" speech, Carter criticized the country, decrying that "we worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does but by what one owns." He called for a new cohesive, spiritually rich Commonwealth. The speech, viewed by most Americans as overly moralistic and pessimistic, caused Carter's popularity to plummet. Then came the Reagan and Bush years, during which acquisitiveness and material success, rather than simplicity, were the ideal. And now, in the Clinton era, there is a revival of interest in simple living.
At the heart of the various historical manifestations of the American impulse toward simple living is a rejection of consumptionism. But there has been considerable diversity with respect to the human good and the place of work, religion, civic engagement, nature, literature and the arts among these different visions. It is also the case that a concern with simple living was at some points largely apolitical, and at other times at the heart of a broader political and social vision. And just as one might argue that there is no single politics of meaning, so too there is no single politics of simple living. In the hands of the Puritans, it was almost totalitarian in its scope. At other points, it bordered on the libertarian.
It is important to distinguish poverty from simple living. The difference is not just a matter of the level of provision. Nor is it merely a question of whether or not the lifestyle is chosen. In conceptualizing the simple life, I favor the term "graceful simplicity." It combines two notions. Life is graceful in that it is unharried, and free from dominant fear and stress; the individual is cultivated and appreciative, rather than covetous. Life is simple in that the level of consumption is modest, and the human good is found largely in the simple pleasures of friends and family, a good book, a walk in the woods.
I envision a politics of simple living that is liberal in its core orientation, in the sense that it does not prescribe any particular view of wherein a meaningful life is to be found. Rather, it is defined by what it eschews - the pursuit of ever higher levels of income and consumption. It argues for creating an economic environment which is supportive of multiple forms of simple living. In this it builds on the individualist or communalist thrust of the contemporary interest in simple living which says that the real work of creating a meaningful life has to be done by people themselves, with their friends and in communities of shared values. At the same time, it views our national economic and social policies as playing a vital role in creating the background environment within which such projects will either succeed or fail.
A politics of graceful simplicity focuses on time, money, and work. It seeks a society in which ordinary people have:
* a high level of leisure time;
* the ability to satisfy core economic needs at low levels of personal income;
* economic security and dignified work.
Each of these desiderata is relatively concrete. They are the central features of an economic environment that supports simple living. The basic objective is to put the economic realm in its proper (i.e., limited) place and to make room for the rest of life. Each of these features of economic life can be achieved, or at least attempted, through a wide variety of policies and programs. A politics of simplicity should be defined by its commitment to achieving these broad goals, not by the specific programs that might be employed. We should be open and experimental about the means of getting there.
Even if our economic life were leisured, secure, and not excessively dependent upon high income levels, this would not be sufficient for the good, or happy, or meaningful life. It is not a matter of adding objectives. No set of social conditions ever can be sufficient; to every life there is an enormous personal dimension. Living well is an art that individuals and families must learn for themselves. Yet, there is all the difference in the world between a socio-economic order which is friendly and supportive of the human good, and one that undermines it at every turn. Identifying, and acting upon, these differences comprise the essence of public policy.
For most working Americans today, time is always too scarce to enjoy life fully. Between the demands of work and home - and, ironically, of "leisure time" itself most of us feel harassed and harried. Historically, reduction in work hours signified economic progress. During much of the nineteenth century and in the early decades of the twentieth century, workers, who often put in thirteen- or fourteen-hour days, struggled first to achieve the ten-hour, and then the eight-hour day. In the 1930s, there was talk of a thirty-hour week, but for over half a century, reducing work hours has receded as a social concern.
In the last few decades, as married women in large numbers entered the labor force, the family did not have as an option two twenty-five-hour jobs. The choice was between one or two forty-hour jobs, and many families chose two. Households shifting from one person to two people working outside the home experienced an enormous increase in tune pressure.
Since the 1950s, per-capita consumption in the United States has more than doubled, while for many, leisure has declined or remained stagnant. Without ever choosing, we have made the wrong choice; at least some of the productivity growth that enabled higher incomes and consumption should have gone instead to expanding leisure.
Isolated individuals cannot easily choose leisure rather than income growth. When, bucking the dominant trend, a family chooses time rather than income, it not only foregoes consumption, but finds that, relative to others, its economic standing declines. Such a decline is more profound than simply not keeping up with the upwardly mobile Joneses; it is a matter of slipping out of the socioeconomic community that has provided one's sense of place.
Our society needs to address decisions about altering the shape of work collectively. Just as we have legislation on the forty-hour week, so too we should have public debates to consider three-day weekends, reduced daily hours, and guaranteed extended vacations. On one level, expanding leisure time is the easiest policy change to make. In principle, one piece of legislation could dramatically transform life in America.
Expanding leisure time, for example through the introduction of a shorter work week, would have important implications that bear on the other two goals of a simple living movement. Provided that the costs of hiring people to work overtime were high, it would result in the creation of more jobs, thus improving economic security. A decision to expand leisure, however, would result in lower levels of income and consumption. The politics of leisure expansion requires that people be prepared to give up actual or potential income in exchange for more time. Surveys indicate that relatively few people are prepared to reduce their current income for more leisure, though quite a substantial number say they would willingly forego future gains in income in exchange for more leisure.
Why aren't more people willing to trade off some income for more leisure? The primary reason is that most people feel pressed at their current levels of income. Much of the literature on simple living seeks to convince people that the tightness of their budgets is illusory: If they thought more deeply about money and what it buys, they would see that they can cut back without much pain, and that whatever they would lose, it would be more than made up by what they would gain. There is much truth to this argument; if curling up with a good book became the dominant pleasure in American life, it would transform the society. At the same time, as I argued in a previous article in these pages ("Money and Our Economic Life," TIKKUN, November/December 1995), the financial pressure Americans feel comes from real causes. We need to confront the cost of living in America: Why does it cost so much to meet core needs? And what can be done about it?
The central social objective of a politics of simple living is a society in which fundamental human needs can be met at modest levels of income. For most Americans, their fundamental needs for safe neighborhoods, good education, transportation, economic security, and health care are either unmet, or can only be met when isolated households achieve high levels of income.
Except for the poor, the answer is not higher levels of personal income, but rather a search for solutions that do not rely upon individual income to meet all needs. Through shifts in public policy priorities, we can craft a society in which we do not need two cars to get to work, or a house in the suburbs to ensure our family's safety, or private schools to educate our children, or an IRA or a 401(k) to have economic security.
A politics of simple living brings to these familiar areas of policy interest a fuller perception of the problem and a new criterion for solutions. It is not just that people have needs which are not being met; our general approach to meeting needs has depended upon increasing personal incomes, which keeps us wedded to the income focus of American life.
Simple living offers a particular lens through which to approach areas of policy and social concern. It asks, "Will what's happening here result in a society in which we will need more or less personal income to meet central human needs?" For instance, how does the economic and social collapse of our cities affect the financial demands on those lucky enough to flee to private schools, safe neighborhoods, and two car garages? This approach identifies the connections between our social and our economic life, and focuses attention on what has to be done so that modest income allows a family to support a decent life. It is not hostile to the expansion of the public sector, yet it does not view government as the only agent in achieving this goal.
Along with expanding leisure and reducing need-required income, the achievement of graceful simplicity requires change in our notions of income security and employment. There is nothing graceful about a life dominated by fear of losing income, or trapped in work devoid of dignity. To make lives of graceful simplicity possible, we need an economy in which our economic rights are enhanced. Most fundamentally, this includes a right to a job with income sufficient to meet core economic needs. A graceful simplicity movement should not be dogmatic about specific programs for achieving that end. For instance, such a movement should be open-minded and experimental about such issues as raising the minimal wage, or expanding the earned-income-tax credit, or public-sector employment, or empowerment zones.
We are an aging society, and most of us will live longer than our parents. Across America, corporations are cutting back in their commitment to worker pensions, and the Social Security system is headed toward fundamental crisis as the baby boomers reach so-called "retirement age." If the response to a growing insecurity among middle-aged people about their future remains the "every man for himself, and woman too" approach of IRAs and 401(k)s, we will stay mired in the need to earn more.
A politics of plain living rejects that approach, and looks for new answers. Perhaps if we had radically shorter hours and different kinds of work, few would want to retire at all. This kind of politics turns the debate in new directions.
Dignity at work means many things. Some work lives are beneath human dignity, yet people of great dignity endure them to support their loved ones. In part, dignity has to do with power relations between worker and boss, and between men and women. But the issue of human dignity also has to do with the kind of work we are asked to perform. The problem is not that a specific task may be arduous, mechanical, or repetitive; the issue of human dignity is engaged when an entire work life is composed of such tasks. A work life that denies our individuality, our creativity, our moral and aesthetic sensibility is one that denies our dignity as human beings.
It may well be, as some have argued, that the continued introduction of new technologies will have a cleansing effect, eliminating repetitive, mechanical, or formulaic jobs. If so, it will offer half the solution. The other half lies in the creation of millions of meaningful jobs.
How do we, as a society, find ways of liberating people from income pressures, creating meaningful work, yet dealing successfully with the problems of unsafe neighborhoods, inadequate education, and inadequate housing? In an article last year in TIKKUN ("High Tech Populism," May/June 1995), Jeremy Rifkin put forward an intriguing suggestion that can be used to these ends. The government would issue income vouchers to individuals seeking jobs in the non-profit sector. These would be redeemed by the non-profits to cover the costs of training and placement in community-building jobs. Indeed, non-profit-sector employment could be dramatically increased with an even simpler policy change increasing the deduction for charitable giving to, say, 150 percent of the value, or changing it from a tax deduction that lowers taxable income to a tax credit that directly reduces the tax bill. Thus, the politics of simple living might suggest opposition to the flat tax, which would cut rates and eliminate deductions. An argument can be made for keeping tax rates the same or even raising them, and crafting credits and deductions to sustain lives of graceful simplicity. At the same time, unburdening ourselves from an approach to taxation that makes us bookkeepers of our own lives has a powerful appeal.
A simple living movement should not pretend to have all the answers, and indeed there is a danger of being prematurely programmatic. Graceful simplicity is essentially a vision that redefines what counts as personal and social progress in economic matters. It is an alternative to undue focus on growth, income, and consumption. Within that vision, there may emerge a multiplicity of policy agendas. Too much focus on how to get there, rather than on changing the consensus on where we want to go, runs the risk of reducing the goal to a shopping list of programs. What we need in America today is not primarily a new set of programs, but a rethinking of the fundamentals of economic life.
Let us assume that a politics of simplicity was successful, that we had a society in which leisure was ample, needs could be met with limited personal income, and jobs and income were secure. What difference would it make? I believe it would transform our social world. True, some people would watch more TV, but more important, it would lead to an outpouring of interest and energy for the things that really matter to people - enjoying their friends and family, the arts, learning, religion, political engagement, and volunteer work.
In a world in which there was an abundance of truly secure jobs that paid $20,000 for twenty-five hours of work, and in which this was sufficient to meet our needs, the place of employment would recede in our lives. The question, "What do you do?" would fade as a way of asking what you did for a living. Rather, it would be used to ask someone about the range of their activities. For some, being a musician or a writer or a political activist might coincide with producing a modest income; for others, these identities might be avocational, as they make their living working three days a week driving a bus.
A change of this sort would diffuse throughout our society, affecting schooling and childhood itself. Getting on the fight track, deciding what you want to do (i.e., your "career path") would no longer dictate educational priorities to the extent that they do in the current system. We know this is so, because things were different just thirty years ago when many of us were young and there was a buoyant job market for college graduates. In its own way, this would be an opportunity society: not the opportunity to get rich, but an abundance of opportunities to pursue life's experiences, and to do so without fear that if a wrong choice is made, there is no getting back on the train.
Is it possible to bring this about? A few years ago, the agenda proposed here, focusing on leisure, health, education, housing, and income security would not have seemed impossibly ambitious. Yes, it might (though not necessarily) mean a larger public sector; it might mean more rather than less taxes; it might mean new social programs, new efforts to make government work. But nothing proposed here is beyond what people in Congress were thinking about in the 1970s. The original form of the Humphrey-Hawkins Act contained an enforceable fight to a job; this was stripped from the legislation when it passed in 1978. Former Congressman Donald Fraser of Minnesota (for whom I worked years ago) offered legislation to create job sabbaticals.
Today, we face a crisis in public finance and a general disbelief in the ability of government programs to deliver on their promises. If what we are talking about is returning to the unfinished liberal agenda, it is indeed unlikely that we will see it happen anytime soon.
But the politics of simple living is not about government programs, let alone those aimed at discrete social problems. Rather, it is about a comprehensive paradigm shift in our understanding of how the economic realm relates to the human good. The conventional, consumeristic conception tells us that enjoying economic bounty largely constitutes the good life; that work is important primarily because it serves as a means to goods and services; that a person's standard of living is thus measured by their level of consumption; and that the performance of the economic realm as a whole is primarily measured by the expansion of the collective pie - that is, by economic growth.
The simple living paradigm holds that the primary role of the economy is to satisfy core needs; beyond meeting those needs, economic progress enhances the good life insofar as it eliminates toil and expands leisure time. A hectic society with high levels of consumption and long hours of empty work is a society that is confused about the human good.
How, then, do we understand the relationship between a politics of plain living and a politics of meaning? As two different terms for the same perspective? As partially overlapping philosophies that can make common cause but remain distinct?
Both outlooks are critical of excessive concern with getting and spending and social status. Both reject the idea that an individual's worth is linked to income and wealth. Both see a human emptiness and poverty in a life centered around getting ahead and "making it."
Yet, the politics of meaning is a much more ambitious and much more encompassing outlook than the politics of simple living. And, I would argue, perhaps for those very reasons, it has less potential for actually transforming American life.
The politics of meaning focuses on the creation of a loving and caring society. It seeks to find such concern on all levels, be it within individual relationships or corporate behavior. The politics of plain living that I have advocated leaves open certain central elements of what constitutes the good life. It envisions an economic life in which, with relatively limited hours of paid employment, individuals and families can meet their central economic needs. This reordering of priorities then opens a space in which, secure from economic anxiety, people might pursue the good life as best they can fund it, be it in relationships with friends and family, in service to others, in political struggle, in pursuit of knowledge, in the arts, in exploring a spiritual path.
As a form of politics, the politics of plain living is less expansive and less ambitious than a politics of meaning, which would assess social policy and practice, legislation and institutions by asking, "Does it produce human beings who are idealistic and caring, able to sustain loving and committed relationships?" The politics of simplicity keeps its eye on a few rather concrete socio-economic objectives. And, in doing so, it uses different language, and has, I believe, a very distinct appeal.
The focus is much more economic - on increasing leisure, limiting the growth of need-required income, and insuring income and employment security. This is not to say that the politics of plain living is at bottom about economic issues, or that it is a new check-list of liberal desiderata. Rather, it is about creating an economic environment that will enable, rather than undermine, people's ability to find lives that make sense.
If its agenda is more circumscribed and considerably less utopian than one that seeks a loving society, it nevertheless remains daunting, and is similarly subject to the charge that it goes well beyond what is realistic and possible. But, there is a difference. It may be implausible that we might be able to increase taxes so as to provide free higher education, or that we can devise government programs that will transform corporations into loving relaters. But they constitute different kinds of implausibility. The politics of simplicity has a far more circumscribed sense of what is politically viable.
The vocabulary and set of problems on which a politics of plain living centers are very concrete and relate directly to most people's daily struggles. As a political style, there is a marked difference between focusing on why it is that we experience a time famine, and why it is that we experience a meaning famine.
I am not arguing against a full-blown politics of meaning, but I believe that it will not resonate with tens of millions of Americans. Yet, most, if not all, of the policy agenda of a politics of plain living is compatible, or even integral, to a politics of meaning. And this affirmation of a plain living agenda can be expected also to appeal to people with a wide range of social outlooks. What we need today is to open the question, "What is an economy for?" We need a broad consensus in support of a new way of looking at the relationship between the human good and the economic realm. A politics of simplicity not only offers us that vantage point, but it resonates with much of the best in the American experience.
Jerome M. Segal is a research scholar at the University of Maryland's Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy. He is currently at work on a book titled Graceful Simplicity.
Segal, Jerome M. 1996. The Politics of Simplicity. Tikkun 11(4): 20.
Simple Living and American Dreams - SegalForSenate.Org
Education for Simple Living - SegalForSenate.Org
Are We Simple Creatures? (1999)
The Politics of Simplicity (1996)