Environmental Protection and Economic Well-Being: The Economic Pursuit of Quality

By Thomas Michael Power | Go to book overview

Chapter Two

The Dominance of Quality in
Economic Pursuits: Survival
Needs, Food, and Health Care

1. Introduction: Necessity and Quality in Economics

The power of economics, its claim to priority over other social concerns, is tied to the widely held perception that economics deals with the material basis of human survival. The economy not only produces these basic goods (food, clothing, shelter, and medical care), but it also provides individuals with the jobs and income which, in a market economy, are prerequisites for obtaining them.

It is not that economics assumes that we are only or primarily interested in survival or material goods. Economists quite purposely insist on talking in terms of wants, not needs. It is noneconomists who seem to assert that because we have to survive before we can pursue other, "higher" objectives, economics must focus on material goods and necessity. If that is what economics does, the assertion of its priority seems intuitive and obvious.

This perception or assumption about economics is what leads to the dismissal of concerns about the quality of an experience as being largely nonecomomic and of second or lower priority. Quality is seen as subjective and disputable, not easily evaluated and even more difficult to measure. In contrast, economics is seen as concentrating on things so "real" that they are easily measured, quantified, and valued in money terms. This type of comparison easily leads to the conclusion that there is something dispensable about quality, that "it's nice to have, but you can't feed your family with it." The well-off can concern themselves with frills, but workaday people and their economy cannot.

This dismissal of quality as largely peripheral to our lives and our economy is the basis for much of the criticism of environmentalism as elitist and antieconomic. The same judgment is used to attack educational programs that do not teach the "basics" or job skills. It is behind the criticism of measures to protect the character of neighborhoods and communities. Government spending that goes beyond the provision of "essential services" is also vulnerable to this type of attack.

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