Manfred Max-Neef on the Five Principles of Economics

Chilean economist Manfred Max-Neef, a Right Livelihood laureate, from a recent interview by Amy Goodman.

Excerpts:

“First of all, we need cultured economists again, who know the history, where they come from, how the ideas originated, who did what, and so on and so on; second, an economics now that understands itself very clearly as a subsystem of a larger system that is finite, the biosphere, hence economic growth as an impossibility; and third, a system that understands that it cannot function without the seriousness of ecosystems. And economists know nothing about ecosystems. They don’t know nothing about thermodynamics, you know, nothing about biodiversity or anything. I mean, they are totally ignorant in that respect. And I don’t see what harm it would do, you know, to an economist to know that if the beasts would disappear, he would disappear as well, because there wouldn’t be food anymore. But he doesn’t know that, you know, that we depend absolutely from nature. But for these economists we have, nature is a subsystem of the economy. I mean, it’s absolutely crazy.

And then, in addition, you know, bring consumption closer to production. I live in the south of Chile, in the deep south. And that area is a fantastic area, you know, in milk products and what have you. Top. Technologically, like the maximum, you know? I was, a few months ago, in a hotel, and there in the south, for breakfast, and there are these little butter things, you know? I get one, and it’s butter from New Zealand. I mean, if that isn’t crazy, you know? And why? Because economists don’t know how to calculate really costs, you know? To bring butter from 20,000 kilometers to a place where you make the best butter, under the argument that it was cheaper, is a colossal stupidity, because they don’t take into consideration what is the impact of 20,000 kilometers of transport? What is the impact on the environment of that transportation, you know, and all those things? And in addition, I mean, it’s cheaper because it’s subsidized. So it’s clearly a case in which the prices never tell the truth. It’s all tricks, you know? And those tricks do colossal harms. And if you bring consumption closer to production, you will eat better, you will have better food, you know, and everything. You will know where it comes from. You may even know the person who produces it. You humanize this thing, you know? But the way the economists practice today is totally dehumanized.”

AMY GOODMAN: And if you’re teaching young economists, the principles you would teach them, what they’d be?

MANFRED MAX-NEEF: The principles, you know, of an economics which should be are based in five postulates and one fundamental value principle.

One, the economy is to serve the people and not the people to serve the economy.

Two, development is about people and not about objects.

Three, growth is not the same as development, and development does not necessarily require growth.

Four, no economy is possible in the absence of ecosystem services.

Five, the economy is a subsystem of a larger finite system, the biosphere, hence permanent growth is impossible.

And the fundamental value to sustain a new economy should be that no economic interest, under no circumstance, can be above the reverence of life.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain that further.

MANFRED MAX-NEEF: Nothing can be more important than life. And I say life, not human beings, because, for me, the center is the miracle of life in all its manifestations. But if there is an economic interest, I mean, you forget about life, not only of other living beings, but even of human beings. If you go through that list, one after the other, what we have today is exactly the opposite.

AMY GOODMAN: Go back to three: growth and development. Explain that further.

MANFRED MAX-NEEF: Growth is a quantitative accumulation. Development is the liberation of creative possibilities. Every living system in nature grows up to a certain point and stops growing. You are not growing anymore, nor he nor me. But we continue developing ourselves. Otherwise we wouldn’t be dialoguing here now. So development has no limits. Growth has limits. And that is a very big thing, you know, that economists and politicians don’t understand. They are obsessed with the fetish of economic growth.

And I am working, several decades. Many studies have been done. I’m the author of a famous hypothesis, the threshold hypothesis, which says that in every society there is a period in which economic growth, conventionally understood or no, brings about an improvement of the quality of life. But only up to a point, the threshold point, beyond which, if there is more growth, quality of life begins to decline. And that is the situation in which we are now.

I mean, your country is the most dramatic example that you can find. I have gone as far as saying—and this is a chapter of a book of mine that is published next month in England, the title of which is Economics Unmasked. There is a chapter called “The United States, an Underdeveloping Nation,” which is a new category. We have developed, underdeveloped and developing. Now you have underdeveloping. And your country is an example, in which the one percent of the Americans, you know, are doing better and better and better, and the 99 percent is going down, in all sorts of manifestations. People living in their cars now and sleeping in their cars, you know, parked in front of the house that used to be their house—thousands of people. Millions of people, you know, have lost everything. But the speculators that brought about the whole mess, oh, they are fantastically well off. No problem. No problem.

AMY GOODMAN: So how would you turn that around?

MANFRED MAX-NEEF: Well, I don’t know how to turn it around. I mean, it will turn around itself, you know, in catastrophic manners. I mean, I don’t understand how there isn’t—millions of people can all of a sudden go out in the streets in the United States and begin destroying things, I don’t know. That may perfectly happen. You know, the situation is absolutely dramatic. Absolutely dramatic. And it is supposed to be the most powerful country in the world, you know, and so on. And even in those conditions, they continue with those stupid wars, you know, and spend more, more, more millions and trillions. Thirteen trillion dollars for the speculators; not one cent for the people who lost their homes! I mean, what kind of logic is that?”

2 Comments Manfred Max-Neef on the Five Principles of Economics

  1. Sepp

    What an extremely interesting interview. Be sure to follow the link to the video of Any Goodman interviewing Manfred Max-Neef. The link is in the first lines of the article.

    As the economist says, we know. We know very well what should not be done, and yet politicians and bureaucrats will not pay heed. It is clear that our human economy is embedded in, is a sub-set of the economy of the environment, of our ecosystem. Yet we pretend that the ecosystem is a sub-set of our economic activities.

    And to those who live in the USA, Manfred Max-Neef has some significant things to say, as well.

  2. Dane Clegg

    I have been waiting for this clarity of mind since I read “None Dare Call It Conspiracy” by Gary Allen in 1976, and tried to study economics at Concordia University in Montreal, in 1978, where I had the same stone wall attitude from the professor when I mentioned, I had worked in accounting for over 3 years, and had seen how the market worked on the Toronto Stock Exchange, and asked when we were going to study the reality on the street. To which the Professor responded, “We never study the street, just the model”, I left the class, and resigned from the university, and in 1980 moved to Berkeley and helped start-up R&D computer companies transition into full production facilities (as a production control Expediter from aircraft simulator manufacturing).

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