Valuing what Matters: from Efficiency to Sufficiency
Illustration by Eva Bee, represented by Meiklejohn.co.uk
A Leverhulme Fellowship has been awarded to Professor Ian Gough who suggests a radical new approach to addressing the gap between how the market values jobs and how valuable jobs are to the economy and society.
In March 2020, the UK and other governments produced a list of 'essential occupations' requiring special concessions during pandemic-related restrictions. For the first time since the start of World War II, a set of occupations was recognised as essential to the continuance of the economy and society. Moreover, many of the jobs on this list are low paid - the gap between how the market values jobs and how jobs are valued normatively and socially was dramatically revealed.
The research intends to utilise this historic moment to flesh out a theory of value built around the idea of common human needs. This offers an alternative to the value system inherent in capitalist economies based on satisfaction of consumer preferences or wants, implying that price determines value. Theories of human need and capabilities have developed over the past decades and have reached a point where they can provide an alternative standard of value.
This needs-based approach has several benefits. It introduces the idea of sufficiency or 'enough' - which has no meaning in orthodox economic theory. On a planet with finite ecological limits, it provides a measure of sustainable well-being. It can be generalised not only globally but also across generations.
A core requirement is then identifying floors and ceilings, or the upper and lower limits of sufficiency. In the labour market, as we have seen, some occupations are essential for individual or societal well-being - they help to sustain the floor. At the other extreme, some occupations are wasteful of carbon or material inputs or are counter-productive in other ways - they threaten to breach the ceiling. Between these limits are millions of conventional jobs. Similarly, in the consumption domain, some goods and services are necessities, others contribute to flourishing and some are luxuries surplus to a flourishing life.
Part of this research aims to empirically identify these limits in the domains of production, consumption and income. This will require a distinct methodology that combines both expert and lay knowledge in fora that are as open, democratic and disinterested as possible. I cannot undertake that research directly but I will be able to draw on, for example, Citizens' Assemblies in Ireland, France and the UK. I will review these emerging methods of achieving consensus and assess their role in developing an alternative system of value, one that accounts for both people and the planet.
The information has appeared on the Leverhulme Trust newsletter in September 2021.
Duration: October 2021 to April 2023
Funded by The Leverhulme Trust.