SWELLENDAM – I cut my teeth in economic reporting on the cold war rhetoric from the mid 60s to the late 80s. Much of that debate still lingers. Despite the death of hard line Communism with the collapse of the Berlin wall, Capitalism itself has gone through major trauma.
Very little can be gained in trying to revive the debate on ideological grounds, or the pros and cons of regulation, deregulation, systems, or structures. It ultimately all comes down to our behaviour and it is perhaps time to acknowledge that systems have less of a longer-term impact on our behaviour than we may think. Indeed, it may be the other way around – that systems are the outcome of our behaviour.
An economic axiom that I have thoroughly tested on a personal level, through research and in discussion in boardrooms and training rooms, is that our true value lies in our capacity to make a contribution to others. It is applicable at an individual, company and country level. The argument then becomes simply which system best encourages contribution: pushing it through coercion as in Communism or pulling it through competition and seduction as in Capitalism. Perhaps it is neither. The former has failed; the latter now seems to be creating more rules and regulations to control the very behaviour it unleashed.
To sustain constant increases in prosperity, today’s economy has come to rely on unbridled levels of consumption and acquisition, in turn fuelled by greed and/or insecurity. It has relied on the worst in the human spirit, and has failed to recognise that contribution is best sourced from a willing, generous heart. It is still adhering largely to the profit motive as the engine of production, claiming that human beings are mostly driven by their own immediate self interest. Laudable concepts, such as free markets and market orientation have been painted with the same brush. I believe this is a fallacy. I believe in the inherent goodness of most of humanity. I believe too that the false perceptions can be changed to reach a critical mass that will shift attitudes, behaviour, systems and measurements.
Where did this unflattering definition of a selfish human being come from? Is it instinctive or acquired behaviour?
A stranger walks by and stumbles. Most of us will immediately reach out to help in an instinctive and spontaneous response. A subsequent rational thought driven by prejudices may, or may not alter that response.
In his TV series on Human instinct, British medical and social Scientist, Robert Winston, found that the instinct of care for others is virtually exclusive to human beings and is shared only by a handful of other species. It is so powerful in humanity that it often outranks that of self preservation. His findings were informed by his own and other experiments, as well as anecdotal and physiological research. Human mothers more than any other species are prepared to die for their offspring, and acts of extreme heroism are not uncommon in humanity. It has also been shown that mirror neurons in our brains help mimic the actions and emotions of others, creating a platform for empathy. We are all, he concludes, natural born heroes.
This capacity to be kind predates modern society, proving that care for others is not the preserve of enlightenment, culture, religion, or nurturing. A 200 000 year old jawbone of an elderly woman showed that she had been kept alive by the kindness of her companions.
But “caring” can be taken much further.
At an individual level, psychology doyens such as Viktor Frankl and Carl Jung believe that we find inner peace and contentment in acts of kindness to others. American psychologist, Daniel Kahneman won a Nobel Prize in economics for his work which showed that despite an eightfold increase in average living standards in 50 years, human contentment had on average increased very little and had actually declined in many cases.
Motivational gurus mostly see success in the ability to look beyond immediate self interest and self gratification. By its very nature, success means risk and risk implies not being constrained by the narrowness of self interest. The real entrepreneurs in life are those who have done something meaningful and lasting for humankind and arguably this was their intention.
At a social level, exchange has evolved from our capacity to identify needs in others. The very basis of transaction has to start with knowing the others’ needs first, and then only applying “what’s-in-it-for-me”. The profit motive is a perversion of the caring motive.
At a company level, the true legacy of great companies is rooted in their ability to add tangible value to people’s lives. In “Built to Last“, Collins and Porras concluded that profit was a minor consideration in truly great companies. The financial giants and multinational monsters that have played havoc in the world today are nothing more than mutant mergers chasing paper value.
At a country level, World Bank studies have shown that prosperity is strongly linked to countries having an external focus and developing people. Despite world war perversions, the real and lasting legacy of Switzerland is the Red Cross and not banking or watches. National life satisfaction measures show little correlation between national contentment and material wealth.
At a spiritual level, all major religions teach the “love thy neighbour principle”. I particularly like the Sufi saying: “One act of kindness to your fellow human being is equal to one year’s devotional prayer.”
Human beings have learned how to control, nurture and give expression to their basic instincts in a number of ways: self preservation through possessions and eating rituals, often to excess; pro-creation through stimulation, titillation, and even entertainment; competitiveness through sport, patriotism, ethnicity, and even war. But the most noble of all, that of caring, has been given little more than a Cinderella status. Yet it could be the foundation of one of the most important activities of our lives: that of exchange.
Humanity has become the custodian of all things on the planet. We have become majestic through our capacity to be kind. We will lose it if we abuse it. Despite all of the encouragement to the contrary, we have paid homage to self interest as the driver of consumption and acquisition to underpin material prosperity. We have made as if it is human nature. It clearly is not. It is a sad, sad perversion of what we really are and what we can be. We can only hope that if this perversion has caused the crisis we are in, a return to our real humanity will get us out of it.
It starts with you and me.
*Jerry Schuitema is an award winning veteran journalist, author, retired management consultant and former economics broadcaster who focuses on behaviour in business and economics.