Wed Feb 12, 2003

Taking it for Granted

Daniel Davies is thinking about what a decent living is. His intuition is that it’s “the lowest level of material possessions in a society which allows one to escape shame and prejudice.” He worries that this view leads to a reductio, because someone asked him “Does a decent living include a cable modem?” Brad DeLong hints at this too (but doesn’t take a position), by saying “just you wait: by 2010 (if Kim Jong Il does not blow the place up) in South Korea anyone who does not earn enough to comfortably afford DSL will be indecently poor”. D-squared sticks to his guns, just about, suugesting that “If it is impossible to get a job without an email address, then maybe a modem of some sort (not necessarily ADSL) is a part of that standard. And so on.”

I think he’s right. The reductio works in both directions. Take any commodity you now take for granted as a necessity, displace it back a few years and watch it become a luxury item. A car. The telephone. Soap. An indoor toilet. Running water. And so on. This is partly the old distinction between absolute and relative poverty, but also more than that, because that distinction tends to suggest comparisons between isolated individuals or households. What’s more important is the capacity to participate in society.∗ That’s why there are charities that provide people not with food and shelter, but with telephone numbers and voicemail, because it’s not easy to get a half-decent job without a phone number.

(∗You know, society—- that thing that individuals constitute in virtue of their relations to one another, but that has all kinds of interesting properties of its own. Easily forgotten in these individualistic times. Until you remember that, as Georg Simmel pointed out, individualism is largely the byproduct of a particular kind of social organization.)