When I was younger, I read a story involving an island where diamonds were plentiful. Literally, diamonds were such a prolific resource that they became background noise, as much as trees and bushes are to us here in New England. Whenever seafarers crash-landed there--which they often did because that was the vehicle for the theme of the story--they drunkenly hoarded the diamonds. The inhabitants of the island were patient with the seafarers, in part because they too were seafarers at some point. As time passed, the seafarers lost interest in the diamonds and began disposing of them from their person and allowing them to blend back into the background environment. They had no value due to their sheer limitlessness, as well as an absence of a modern economy. Due to the utopic conditions on the island, the inhabitants agreed to never let anyone leave because they'd draw the rest of the world back to them to retrieve the diamonds and desecrate their paradise, which ironically had nothing to do with the diamonds.
From the seafarers' perspective, the utopia was determined by the existence of the diamonds because they represented monetary gain due to their rarity on the mainland. That's really the only reason diamonds, or any precious stone, have monetary value in the first place. Let me be clear: I don't care about the rocks. I care about the behavior of the individuals who interact with limited resources. I'm not an economist, but one doesn't need to be to identify ethical incentives; the economists simply provide solutions to issues that stump most of the rest of us. It's here that I look at the initial interactions and incentives between the crash-landed seafarers and the inhabitants.
The seafarers got drunk off potential wealth. They couldn't buy anything on the island because they didn't have an active economy. But to the seafarers it wasn't potential wealth because their imaginations pre-filled in the gaps. They were already in their new houses. That was their only incentive. Now, the inhabitants had a different incentive, which manifested in their impressive patience and understanding of the seafarers' junkie-like behavior. The seafarers were two types of resources to the inhabitants: limited actual resource, and limited potential resource. They were an limited actual resource because crash-landings were rare, and a limited potential resource because if the inhabitants indoctrinated them too quickly and forcefully, they'd jeopardize the seafarers' trust. There are two bona fide resource-bases here and the inhabitants needed to cultivate each appropriately if they were to preserve their money-less utopia.
Is this story a device as teaching us how man is inherently selfish? No, and I think that's an incredible superficial and glib theory if one chooses to make it. The seafarers simply applied their practiced paradigm onto the island. That current paradigm was (in part) rarity-driven-value, and until they restructured their paradigm to see diamonds as worthless and useless, their practiced paradigm drove them toward a junkie-level diamond-hoarding. Hence it's not necessarily about selfishness--despite the object hoarding--but about the habit & value triggers firing feverishly in response to stimuli programmed as a extremely valuable.
If you've ever read Charles Duhigg's NYT bestseller "The Power of Habit," you'll remember the habit loop; cue, routine, reward. The inhabitants had a wildly different habit loop than the seafarers, which produced wildly different values. The seafarers' loop: Recognize the opportunity to make money--> Exercise means of obtaining money--> and Obtain money. The inhabitants' habit loop was: Recognize a need for sowing and harvesting--> Go through steps to ensure crop survival--> Live peacefully in leisure. They're completely different paradigms based on basal wants and needs of the concrete world, which--on the inhabitants end--acted as incentive for slowly indoctrinating the seafarers into their way of life.
This isn't the first story citing the conflict between natural living and materialism. We love our things. This is a common occurrence in the old Star Trek episodes involving the replicator. How much want can you have when you can replicate anything? This is a sibling argument to the diamond argument, except the replicator operates on a much wider level. Not only does it dismiss physical money, but it abates people's heroin-like addiction to want whatever their imaginations can produce in the moment.
The Star Trek replicator blew materialism out of the water. That cultures on the show (and the myriad species within) were enabled to progress intellectually because the replicator taught them that stuff is, and only will be, stuff. Thus, money wasn't needed because the purpose of money is to limit and regulate the acquisition of limited resources. No resource limitation, no need for money. And that's what the island people got. Their paradise wasn't diamond-based, it was diamond-limited. It was simply a clear sparkling rock blanketing an otherwise useful landscape. Money is no different, but we haven't appreciated this lesson because our resources are still limited. Maybe if we imagine ourselves in this scenario we'd give ourselves some perspective.
Unfortunately, our habit loops still entail hoarding physical objects based on rarity and trend because we've inappropriately combined "concrete rarity" with "true value to us." These concepts are impossibly different and will remain as such.
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