Reintroducing the Concept of ‘Enough’

two possible ways: one conventional, one revolutionary

Stephen Yearwood
7 min readJun 1, 2024
Photo by Suzi Kim on Unsplash

Civilization has been dominated for some time by capitalism. Even with the narrowest definition it can be given (mass production of goods/services for sales in geographically extended markets), it has to be acknowledged that the form of economic activity that word denotes has transformed society.

Most importantly, that transformation has affected the very idea of ‘limits’ on power — to the detriment of humanity. It will behoove us to consider the present state of affairs (more to the point, how we can improve upon it) in terms of the movement of history that got us here, starting with the form of governance (the formal relations of power in society) that existed when and where capitalism first developed: the aristocracy of England. Then we’ll have to go back a bit more than that.

One positive trait of aristocracy as a governing system is that it recognized inherent limits on power. In that system both economic power and political power come from land.

Nowadays, as we’ll see, money is the root of economic power (which does get translated into political power). Yet, going back to land as the basis of political power is not a viable solution. (As far as this author is concerned, neither is abolishing private property.)

In aristocracy economic power is directly related to how much land a person has — and the extent and the effectiveness to which it is put to producing goods. There are inherent limits in all of that: there is only so much land in existence and some limit on how much can be produced from it, no matter what.

In that system political power is indirectly related to property/economic power. One has to be a landowner (of some arbitrarily determined status) to be allowed to hold political office or participate in choosing who will. Also, with aristocracy it tends to be the case that more land translates into more political power. Still, there is no necessary proportional link between the two forms of power: more of one does not necessarily entail more of the other (in either direction, for that matter).

The point is that, with its acknowledgment of inherent limits, there was in that system of governance an implicit recognition of the notion of ‘enough’. To be sure, ‘enough’, i.e., a sufficiency given the material limits inherent in life, had always been an integral element of human existence. Its place there prior to the advent of civilization, when the goal of life was physical survival, could not be more obvious.

Civilization — the existence of cities — followed the development of farming. Farming introduced into the world the possibility of a permanent — ongoing — surplus: enough grains could be grown and stored that some would still be there when the next harvest was accomplished. It also introduced the idea of staying in one place, rather than constantly being on the move to find food.

Embedded in the existence of an ongoing surplus is the possibility of accumulation. Besides an ongoing surplus, and directly related to it, accumulation was first directed at land.

Farming brought with it the notion of ‘owning’ — laying exclusive claim to — a particular portion of land. Back in the day, groups had laid claim to exclusive ‘hunting grounds’, and in places ‘use rights’ for individuals were recognized, but the idea of owning the land was as foreign to those peoples as talk of aliens from outer space would be. Farming changed that.

Accumulation is the transcendence of the inherent material limits that pervaded human existence before the introduction of farming. Bringing that possibility to fruition was part of a whole new approach to life: permanent surplus and ownership of land coupled with ‘permanent’ settlements, i.e., cities.

Cities were an entirely new form of human grouping. That inevitably led to a whole new approach to political power: the power to decide for the group as a whole. That power and economic power based on owning land became inextricably intertwined in various ways until . . .

Modern capitalism changed everything. Money replaced property as the most important economic element. Stock shares replaced land as the most important form of wealth. Neither of those is limited by anything other than economic considerations. The notion of inherent limits on economic power was destroyed.

The emergence of capitalism (in England in the late 1700’s) created the first Modern political ideology: conservatism. At first, political conservatives, who were tied to aristocracy (or the idea of absolute monarchy) were appalled by capitalism. They resisted it and, above all, the idea of political power flowing to people who gained economic power through it. Resisting it (and emerging movements towards political democracy, an early contributor to the beginning of political liberalism) is what earned them their label. (Conservatives were divided regarding the abolition of slavery, which was also a proto-liberal issue.)

Eventually, conservatives, faced with a choice between the triumph of capitalism or the triumph of socialism — which in those days meant indubitably the end of private property — opted for the former. Many would have the intellectual integrity (or at least acuity) to support the enfranchisement of citizens — males, anyway—without property as a counterweight to the potential political power of those nouveau riche, but they still would support the economic interests of capitalists over those of workers.

To this day, conservatives have not come to grips with the implications of capitalism concerning “social power” (all but defined by Warren J. Samuels as the ability to effect choices). Those choices can range from the most trivial, personal kind, such as what to eat for lunch, to choices that affect the whole planet. An example of the latter would be a choice by the CEO of a multinational corporation producing, say fertilizer, to pour poisons into the air and the water or the ground (thence to the groundwater) rather than reduce profits by cleaning it up. Only a government, as the functional arm of a community acting as a whole, can have the power to counter such a choice. Yet, conservatives, who ostensibly seek to limit power, have been blind to the unlimited nature of economic power in the age of capitalism.

The point is that conservatives have lost sight of the concept of ‘enough’. It was intrinsic to conservatism when inherent limits were part and parcel of the social world the first conservatives were seeking to preserve.

Again, the advent of Modern capitalism took away the very idea of inherent limits on economic power. At the same time, it has been true in modernity as it has been true for as long as civilization has been around that economic power has always translated, one way or another, into political power. For sure, political power can be used to accrue wealth and the social power that comes with it, but that is another (necessary) topic. Here the issue is the implications for society of the loss of inherent limits on economic power and the idea of ‘enough’ in the economic sphere following the development of capitalism.

In the U.S., a progeny of English culture when it came into existence in the late 1700's, ‘enough’ was largely lost for people from Europe in the sheer bountifulness of this part of the planet: there was ‘more than enough’ for all (males of European descent). Yet, it did make an appearance here in the1950’s, under Keynesian economics. During that decade the maximum tax rate was consistently in the neighborhood of 90% (on income above a few hundred thousand dollars — several million in today’s money). That effectively defined that level of taxable income as ‘enough’.

By that time, though, conservatism had been thoroughly co-opted by capitalism. Not just high marginal tax rates, but the whole idea of ‘enough’ personal aggrandizement was anathema. Lowering marginal tax rates became from then to the present the primary economic concern of conservatism. Sickeningly, that CEO’s should be allowed to destroy the natural environment — on which human life does ultimately depend — for the sake of higher profits became as much a part of conservatism as lowering marginal tax rates did. By now, as far as they are concerned, no limit — not even any conception of ‘enough’ social power stemming from economic power — can be allowed to exist for individuals in that sphere.

I say it is time to reintroduce into this capitalist world the concept of ‘enough’ in economic terms.

One way to do that would be through reintroducing extremely high rates of taxation (for taxable incomes in excess of, say, a few million dollars). One weakness of that approach is that applying those taxes to the betterment of the lives of people with less money is another political fight of at least the same magnitude. Also, by urging the maximum collection of taxes it actually encourages the political imperative to maximize total output (thus maximizing employment and total income, hence the collection of taxes at whatever rates exist), which maximizes pressure of all kinds on the natural environment.

I have developed another way of approaching the notion of ‘enough’. Rather than using taxes to redistribute income, it makes ‘enough’ the level for a guaranteed minimum income for all (adult citizens). This proposal does not limit income/wealth. It provides a way to eliminate taxation. It does, however, limit the accumulation of money/assets (wealth). It recognizes that there is such a thing as ‘enough’ on that end, as well. Exactly what that might be is up for debate, but that such a thing exists is as central to human existence as are drinkable water and breathable air.

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for more about this proposal:

Economic System Not the Problem” “22 min read” emphasizes how this proposal fits within the existing economic system of any nation.

Two Possibilities for MMT” (‘Modern Monetary Theory’) “17 min read” relates how this proposal connects with that conceptual construct.

Paradigm Shift” “22 min read” is the most technical offering, which emphasizes how this proposal makes money (as currency) a “fully exogenous variable.”

Same Economy, Way Better Outcomes for Society” “15 min read” goes into more detail as to actually implementing the proposal, using the U.S. for illustrative purposes (somewhat dated in some details at this point, but still useful).

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Stephen Yearwood

unaffiliated, non-ideological, unpaid: M.A. in political economy (where philosophy and economics intersect) with a focus in money/distributive justice