What if everyone did what you’re doing? (Part 1!)

Most of the people we’ve met on the first few weeks of this journey have been intrigued by what we’re doing. People like the idea of traveling around the world and seeing new things, but they’re also taken in by the idea of trying to live a life without money. In fact, we think that part of the incredible generosity we’ve encountered at every turn can be attributed to the fact that people, consciously or unconsciously, want to believe such things are possible. People are frustrated with having to structure their lives primarily around the obtaining and the exchanging of federal reserve notes and their plastic equivalents. So, people give to us partially because they want to help create a reality where life doesn’t always have to depend on money. But one question that I think is present in a lot of these interactions, on the part of the people we meet and in our own minds, is one that’s not usually explicitly asked. What would happen if everyone did what you guys are doing?

So, I’m’a try to answer this in three parts because the question can mean a few different things. Today is PART 1!

PART 1: The most general meaning of our question probably deals with the most fundamental choices we have to make in our lives. That is, should we follow the general path society lays out for us, perhaps pursuing our dreams and trying to make change on the margins, in the time and space left for us outside of work and the other conventional strictures by which we bind ourselves? Or should we commit ourselves to following our beliefs to their logical conclusions and living out our dreams and questions, even when doing so results in lifestyles so different they force us into facing difficult questions about what’s right and wrong, what’s necessary and superfluous? Here we might reframe our question as: what if everyone did what they wanted, while making a sincere effort to make the world a better place?

Our societal conventions aren’t stopping war, poverty, or global warming. They’re creating them. (Maybe they’ll also help to stop them someday; we’ve solved problems of our own creation before.) Maybe our most sincere efforts beyond or outside of those conventions can’t make the world better either. But maybe they can. Do people contribute to the systems that create mediocre or awful outcomes for themselves and other humans because, after careful consideration, they’ve decided it was the best option? Or do they do what they do and work the jobs they work because that’s just what you do?

I think people don’t question their actions mainly because societal conventions give them positive reinforcement. By our society’s implicit logic, the measure of whether or not you’re doing right is whether or not you’re earning enough to support yourself (and your family, if you have one). All other considerations are tertiary. The fact that this metric often collides with common sense is not something we deal with… ever, really. If I told my grandmother that I got a job selling toxic mortgage-backed-securities for Goldman Sachs, making enough money to afford a luxury apartment in Manhattan, she would be thrilled for me. She would not question the impact it had on the world. She would not question whether it made me happy. It would earn a lot of money, and we live in a society (I’m careful not to say “a world”) where the amount of money you make and have determines your value.

That system is shit. It makes people more polite to lawyers than to janitors. And it makes us think that somehow people don’t deserve a house or health care or decent food if they haven’t secured enough banknotes to pay for it.

So, imagine an alternative world where we assess actions based on whether or not they improve the human condition and where people strive to do what they want and think is right, without regard to how it conforms to society’s expectations. That’s what we’re doing. We might be doing it wrong and we might be making the world worse. We worry that we’re burning too much gasoline. I, at least, worry that we might not be doing enough to help people. But I don’t doubt for a second that living by our conscience and our desires is the right thing to do. And I don’t doubt that if everyone did so, we’d have a better world.

– Adam


9 thoughts on “What if everyone did what you’re doing? (Part 1!)

  1. I had the pleasure of meeting up with the three of you at one of your stops and have been thinking a lot about what you’re doing ever since. I tell anyone who will listen about your travels, but am realizing that I have a hard time articulating why exactly I admire it, beyond the obvious fact that you’re ACTUALLY doing what people will often enviously say they wish they could, but could never ever do (which is very often not really true).
    Spending the little time I did with you three gave me a lot to think about, and inspired me, if not to shuck my own self- or societally-imposed responsibilities for the moment, to at least write you a nice letter of gratitude and admiration.

    Adam, what you said about your grandmother hypothetically being proud of you obtaining a high-paying world-harming job is an idea I’ve been thinking about a lot the last couple of weeks. I feel like so many of us were raised by a generation of people that values work for work’s sake. And the fact that i’m about to criticize that might make me sound lazy, which, from my family’s perspective, is true. It seems to me that it’s not only fine to have a high-paying job that hurts the world or people, it’s also fine to have a low-paying job that has no impact either way, just like it’s fine to do a job you absolutely love that makes the world a better place, so long as it’s work, which means you’re paid for it. Because that’s what we’ve come to know and expect. We need that intermediary step (paycheck) to justify what we do. It’s the thinking that makes it respectable
    and awesome that a friend of mine earns his living by playing and teaching guitar and has saved up enough paychecks to buy himself a house (which truly is awesome), but somehow less respectable that you guys are arguably doing the same thing in exchange for temporary housing and food. At least, that’s the impression I get by the awed yet doubtful reactions of people when I inarticulately talk you guys up. Obviously I and probably everyone reading this agrees that what you’re doing is great, and what the hell’s the difference that you just cut out the middle steps? Why do we have to “work” for it?

    I’m a pretty easy audience, so I can’t say I ever needed convincing that your way of doing it is arguably just as reasonable, if not a better way to live. But in the interest of my new year’s resolution to be more vocal about the nice things I think about people, I’d like the three of you to know that I was just as impacted and impressed by your overwhelming friendliness, gratitude,
    passion, and honest desire to learn more about the people and places you come in contact with, as I was by your willingness to live outside the rules. So maybe the only real tangible outcome for me is this letter, but if that’s your effect–a surge of positivity and promoting a sense of community, making me more aware and therefore generous with my time and resources, then I think you guys are doing a damn fine “job.”

    Forgive the outpouring of sappiness and love. It is Valentine’s Day after all.

    • Wow. What a great response! Your way of thinking (and your positivity) sound an awful lot like the way we try to approach the world.

      Work for work’s sake is an incredibly dangerous concept. So many bad things are done because “I’m just doing my job”. As if following orders or earning a paycheck relieves us of the responsibility to consider the consequences of our actions.

      There’s a great essay by Bertrand Russell called In Praise of Idleness. It’s about 15 pages and TOTALLY worth reading. Jesse and I both point to it frequently when talking about either personal choices or the economic organization of society: here’s the link.

      I want to expand a little bit on the ideas of work reduction and job sharing. First, the ultimate goal of an economic system should not be jobs for all, but well-being for all. Jobs, within our current system, are a way to produce things and a way to ensure some access to money for a large group of people. Anyway, for a long time, one of the main goals of the labor movement, and society more broadly, was the reduction of work – down to the 12-hour day, then to 10 hours, and now generally to 8 hours. But we mostly achieved that a century ago. With modern technology and production techniques we could be working way less. Russell argues for 4 hours in 1932, and think of how much we’ve advanced since then. Think of how much friendlier, happier, and more environmentally conscious people would be if they weren’t over-worked, but still had the means (money, in our system) to acquire the material things necessary for a decent life.

      At some point, a society that’s producing enough for everyone (even if some are forced to live without those things because they don’t have enough money) has to choose between producing more crap and having more time to actually live. But our capitalist system pushes us toward more work/production and less leisure through a variety of mechanisms. In the US, you generally get health insurance through your employer, which means you have to work enough hours to earn it and which often means you feel stuck in jobs you don’t like or don’t believe in. Then, we poorly distribute the wealth we do have (the richest 1% has 43% of the country’s wealth) so that many have to work multiple jobs and tons of hours just to get close to their share of our common wealth. On a global scale, of course, it’s even more unequal, with lots of people working very hard to produce things their salaries will never let them afford. Also, the 40-hour work week is still the standard and their are very few jobs where you can work much less than that, except in under-paid low-skilled positions. There’s no reason we shouldn’t have part time engineers, doctors, etc.

      One obvious solution to the problem of the co-existence of overwork and unemployment is job sharing. Instead of hiring 30 employees at 40 hours-a-week, a firm (or the government) can hire 40 employees at 30-hours. This is obvious, but it’s complicated by the employer-based benefit system in this country. This is yet another reason we need to disconnect health care from private employers and private companies and institute either a single-payer or fully nationalized system.

      Anyway, I’m super rambling, but if we want to be happier and more sustainable, I really think we need to replace massive work and massive consumption with more leisure. A shorter work week and job sharing are pretty good steps on the way to a world with a lot less formal work and a lot more generalized reciprocity.

      – Adam

    • Ahhh, there is one more thing related to your comment that I think’s worth mentioning right now. That’s the idea of generalized reciprocity, my personally preferred way of framing the concept I’m about to describe. You pointed out that “you guys are arguably doing the same thing in exchange for temporary housing and food”. Phrased that way, it sounds like we’re replacing money with bartering or payment in kind. And there’s some truth to that. But, as much as possible, we’re trying to go beyond thinking of life, production, and consumption as inherently transactionary things in the first place. Instead of feeling like we have a “debt” to anyone or that we “deserve” anything as a result of our actions, we think the world ultimately works best if we receive freely that which we need and contribute freely as much as we can. That’s the idea of generalized reciprocity – instead of reciprocating something good someone has done to me by doing something good for them in particular, I should do as much good as I can for everyone. It’s pretty much the idea of paying it forward, rather than paying it back. That way, I don’t have to make sure someone can do something back for me before I help them, I just do it because I can and I want to.

      Generalized reciprocity is pretty much the basis for the type of world we’d love to see, where cooperation replaces competition, we do good to help people instead of for a paycheck, and where we produce things for use instead of profit. At its most evolved, this would look pretty much like the gift economy envisioned by anarcho-communists.

      I have a post about a lot of this already written that we’ll probably get up in the next couple weeks. I would absolutely love to hear some more comments on some of the ideas I’ve tried to throw out there in these two replies. Have a great day and keep spreading the love and good cheer!

      – Adam

  2. Adam, what about the technical/infrastructural(?) answers to the question, “What would happen if everyone was doing what you are doing?” And I know we’ve spoken of this before, but if everyone chose to do what they desired then who would maintain the roads that you drive on? Who would choose to work and grow food to feed the rest of the population in urban areas where such large crops are not possible? Who would pick up the garbage? Who would sort the recycling? Who would make the boots and gloves necessary to the garbage/recycling men to do their jobs safely? Who would care for the growing millions of elderly? Who would maintain sewage lines and systems? Money, for many people, eases the pain that comes with working a job that one does not “love” but which makes it possible for the rest of society to “live by their consciences and desires” and sometimes just live. This would be a different argument if it was 150 years ago and billions people less but then, we would even be able to have this conversation back then.

    I look forward to your well pondered answer.

    • Hey, we’re having this same conversation on Facebook, basically!

      Who would do the crappy work? At the least, me, you, and robots. In exchange for a society that provides all their needs, I think most people are willing to do perhaps a 4-hour shift each week of the work no one enjoys. And if say 40% of the population is willing to do that amount, there’s a good chance it’ll be enough, especially given the miraculous power of technology, which will/would be even more helpful in a society where automization is good, rather than threatening, for workers.

      And a lot of people like farming and living in the country (citation: all country songs), at least part time, so I’m particularly confident about that.

      We can also make people who voluntarily choose to spend an extra amount of time on these jobs into a kind of social hero. Imagine if labor heroes replaced war heroes!

      I also readily acknowledge that I could be wrong. But I think it’s more likely possible than not. And will it happen? I don’t know. But I think moving toward not coercing people to do these jobs will have more good effects than bad. Finally, it might be worth pointing out that in a world that still has money, but where people have at least their basic needs (food, water, shelter, health, education, liberty) met, most of the current incentive to do these jobs will already have disappeared. And I’m pretty sure you agree with me at least that no one should have to spend most of their life doing crappy work just to avoid lacking these basic things.

      Let’s keep this convo going!
      xoxoxo 🙂

      – Adam

      • “We can also make people who voluntarily choose to spend an extra amount of time on these jobs into a kind of social hero. Imagine if labor heroes replaced war heroes!”….sounds like a Merit system, doesn’t it?

        • It sounds like a system with social incentives. People are always going to like people more based on certain things. I think that’s inevitable and I think that’s ok.

          In my most recent blog entry I wrote: “Huge caveat! The fact that harder workers and bigger contributors don’t inherently deserve more doesn’t mean that it can’t make sense to give them more to incentivize their behaviors. How we should distribute wealth and other benefits is a separate discussion. I aim here only to disabuse us of the notion that the inherent value of some actions or qualities corresponds to a certain inherent deserval of some recompense. Everyone should have what they need, and what they prefer, insofar as their having it has a net positive effect on the world (including them), because that’s good, not because they deserve it.”

          I think we could/maybe should give people who do shitty jobs extra social acclaim because it leads to the best results (people doing those things and feeling good about themselves), not because they deserve it. So not because they are actually more worthy than anyone else, but because giving them extra whatever (and I think social credit is more healthy than material wealth because it doesn’t depend on the oppressive existence of private property), despite their equivalent “worthiness”, leads to a better overall society, on net, for everyone. To reiterate, my argument against merit as a useful moral concept and my argument against the necessity of material incentives are separate. One could be true without the other being true. Does that distinction make sense?

          Could giving some people extra social acclaim lead to unequal power dynamics? Maybe. I think it’s a question worth thinking about. But anyone else can instantly decide to share their acclaim (power?) by also helping to do shitty jobs, so it would probably be hard to hoard enough acclaim to really start to dominate people.

  3. Pingback: What if everyone did what you’re doing? (Part 2!) | sowmanyreasons

  4. Pingback: What if everyone did what you’re doing (Part 3!) | sowmanyreasons

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