Abundance vs. Scarcity

It’s About More than “Mindsets”

Stephen Covey, one of the most successful self-help authors of all time included the “Abundance Mindset” and “Scarcity Mindset” in his blockbuster best seller “7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” published 34 years ago and still selling well. His formula, as many discerning readers have long known, is truly banal. Of course, the Abundance Mindset leads to greater optimism, greater happiness, greater leadership effectiveness. It is generative, giving, cooperative rather than competitive, jealous, or fearful — all the good things that any manager of an enterprise, from megacorporation to nuclear family, is fully aware. The Scarcity Mindset leads to more taking than giving, the “get it while you can” syndrome, greed, general discontent. We all know this.

The catch is that none of us creates our own world! Economists talk about “externalities.” But most of life is composed of externalities! Surely one’s “mindset” must be based more than a little on perceived reality. And reality for most people is what they see around them: namely, scarcity. Abundance would require free goods and services, or pricing so low as to make them easily obtainable by all. Indeed, some things are in that category in developed societies – for many people. Food, clothing, shelter, K-12 education, and some modicum of health care are all supposed to be in the “abundance” category in America. But scarcity reigns for everything beyond an acknowledged minimum level of subsistence. Forget about your affluent neighbors, think about all those who have even less than you. The Global South, the urban and rural poor here in the U.S. — you can’t talk to them about Abundance! You can, however, get their attention by talking Scarcity.

Battling forces more powerful than you seems to have an evolutionary basis. Darwin’s Natural Selection theory was interpreted for nearly two centuries as a depiction of the struggle against forces of Nature, as was the settlement of the Western United States. Likewise, Marx’s “class struggle” was between workers and owners of capital. William F. Buckley famously wanted to “stand athwart history and yell ‘stop’!” – thus planting the flag of conservatism opposing the forces of change and progress. Luddites smashed their mechanical looms in 19th century England. And it continues. But Stephen Covey might argue that history is not so much struggle against odds as it is a cooperative endeavor leading to “Emergence.” His “7 Habits” are merely a late 20th century expression of the alternative articulated in Western intellectual tradition at least since the Enlightenment of the 18th century – some might say as far back as the New Testament. And Emergence is closely related to the idea of Freedom. It is Covey’s Abundance Mindset.

Freedom, in turn, is the essence of classical liberalism, which has dominated our philosophical orientation now for nearly three centuries. Abundance is necessary for freedom. Scarcity restricts freedom. However, defenders of classical liberalism conveniently ignore the fact that among its basic freedoms is the freedom to accumulate property! As we have seen over the last 300 years, that principle has the perverse effect of creating more scarcity! Scarcity for the many enables abundance for the few. Classical liberalism is moot on inequality.

And inequality – of wealth, income, legal status, social standing – while sporadically experiencing temporary, localized, suppression continues to be among the most salient features of modern societies. While net inequality did decrease in certain countries over the course of the 20th century, overall world inequality is greater in the third decade of the 21st century than at any time since the early 20th century. This represents a failure of liberalism, some say. The rich are getting richer, and the poor are, at least, stuck where they are if not getting poorer. Does that failure correlate with the astounding success of capitalism in creating wealth? The question remains controversial. Distribution of goods and services is a complex matter in modern societies. It seems market mechanisms of pricing are not sufficient to ameliorate the situation. The floor of resource availability is often ignored when economists discuss “abundance.”

Public goods” are supposed to be the tool to raise that floor. While it is rational to think that market pricing may be sufficient for luxury goods and services, at lower levels of subsistence the political haggling over what constitutes a reasonable “public good” seems endless. Should an abundance of educational resources guarantee all a taxpayer-supported K-12 schooling experience – of what quality? What about pre-K through 14? Too much? What about the quality of food? Implications for public health? What can a SNAP recipient use their food stamps for? In services, should libraries be considered Public Goods? Parks and playgrounds? What is, after all, the minimum level of subsistence that the least among us should be offered which we, the more affluent tax base, provide? Public goods are an important variable in creating an Abundance Mindset.

Also, still in the realm of politics, how do we judge “hostile intent”? Surely, an Abundance Mindset requires a relative absence of actors with hostile intent. Yet, there are continuous voices who seem to benefit from encouraging us to see our neighbors, or other members of our community, as alien and meaning us harm. And this says nothing about the prospects of other nations seeking to undermine us, or maybe even other political parties out to destroy us. Game theory tends to support a Scarcity Mindset – the basic model of a game is a zero-sum, winner take all, competition, even allowing for alliances among multiple players. Yet, the originators of game theory (John von Neumann and others) did imagine non-zero-sum games. Emergent properties in philosophy are products of these non-zero-sum engagements.

The Abundance Mindset depends upon full implementation of a non-zero-sum model of reality. Stephen Covey probably knew this. Technology has recently been providing a glimmer of hope for a post-scarcity future. But all appearances are that the key ingredient for such a breakthrough lies in the human soul. We need to stop looking over our shoulders to check who’s following us. We ought to shake hands and slap backs more, dream more and hoard less. Let’s apply Erik Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development to our whole civilization, not just our individual personalities – our society is now in Stage 7, Generativity vs. Stagnation, poised to enter Stage 8, Integrity vs. Despair. I say, choose Integrity!

— William Sundwick

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