The Guardian view on the limits of economics: people are priceless

Robot sitting sitting at conference table, using laptop

A fifth of women’s jobs will be automated away in the next decade, according to a McKinsey report. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

AMcKinsey report this week estimates that one in five women’s jobs in Britain and the US will be automated away in the next 10 years. Although men’s jobs will disappear at about the same rate, the study says, they will do so in a different way: women may face particular difficulties in the transition to the future. It is striking that the report, like others of its kind, values women’s work entirely in terms of money.

There are two problems with this. The first, well-known, is that women’s work is valued less by the market than men’s. The second and larger question is how to think about the value of women’s lives, and men’s too.

Contemporary politics and culture, to a large extent, assume that the answer must be something measurable. The value of a life is what it produces; what life is for is consumption of an estimable sort. This is the engine of today’s economy. Though its proponents may not realise this, it implies the belief first put plainly by the English economist Thomas Malthus, that those who do not produce have no right to consume anything, not even the food they need to keep alive. Malthus and those who follow him would say that this is just the way things are: it’s not an ideology but a recognition of reality.

That is not of course true, or it is at best a half truth. In a world which can produce enough for everyone, death by starvation is the outcome of political decisions. So, to a large extent, is poverty itself. There may be a limit to how many people can be lifted out of poverty and how far, but few modern societies approach it, and certainly not the US or Britain. Almost all the developments of contemporary politics and economics tend to increase poverty in developed countries at the same time as they increase wealth.

The cosmetics ad says “because you’re worth it” but the labour market replies “not to us, you’re not”. The real challenge for progressive politics, or even for humane conservatism, is to come to terms with a world in which so many people are not needed for anyone else’s purposes.

The economists’ answer is that they will always be needed to buy the things that must be sold to them to keep others in employment. But even if buying things or experiences were enough to give a life meaning and worth from the inside, which it is not, this would not be a stable solution. Advertising that works creates wants that cannot be satisfied. There is always something desirable that you just can’t quite afford; and the knowledge that other people can’t afford them adds lustre to the possessions people actually enjoy.

The American writer Marilynne Robinson pointed out in a recent essay that “We talk about the sanctity of an individual life, but we have let so much value leach out of the word ‘sanctity’, forgetting its old associations with beauty, mystery, and inviolability.” All these qualities are invisible to economics, which can only talk about preferences. Markets desacralise. But in doing so they miss what gives life meaning.

For the largely post-Christian societies of western Europe and North America, it may be difficult to discover a concept of sanctity without dogma. But there must be some value to life that can’t be measured in money, or even numbers – or else the lives thought valueless will be treated that way.

 This article was amended on 8 June 2019. An earlier version misnamed Marilynne Robinson as Marilynne Robertson.


Author: Roky