Google gives several definitions of the word “utility,” including:
(n.) the state of being useful, profitable, or beneficial; and
(adj.) functional rather than attractive.
Both are fitting, but neither is the first definition that comes to my mind as a semi-trained economist (aka “freelance utility maximizer”). To the economist, utility is the stuff of value. It’s the cheese to the mouse, the gold to the goldbug, and the perfect verse to the pretentious poet.
Some economists might try to measure it in “utils,” but most are happy to leave it as a radically subjective experience of The Good — something impossible to compare across people, or to net against its opposite, The Bad. What’s important is that people try to experience as much of it as possible.
It’s hard to say how such a vague and pseudo-scientific concept came to take on such a foundational role in the economics discipline. Utilitarianism came of age around the time of John Stuart Mill, its most famous proponent (save perhaps @PeterSinger, its modern exemplar), and seems like an overly formalized version of Aristotle’s idea that all we really want, at root, is to be happy — to flourish.
But who says that flourishing has anything to do with maximizing utility, especially the utility we derive from consumption? Economics is the study of the allocation of scarce resources. It’s not concerned with the things we can possess in superabundance, like sunsets, poetry, and meaning, but which can’t be commodified or made useful in any true sense.
I recently came across a meditation by Henri Nouwen on the lies that the biblical figure of Satan tries to seduce us with. When Jesus is fasting in the wilderness, Satan tries to get him to turn rocks into bread — a very useful trick, which would certainly have the people of his day flocking to him as a worldly savior. Jesus rebukes him, saying, “man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.”
What’s useful, and indeed necessary, to our survival here on earth leads us astray when we seek to maximize it. Look no further than the myth of Midas to see how the caricature of the economizing mindset ends in tragedy.
Still, to someone who is hungry, the bread represents something of real value — far more than the average piece of bread consumed by a non-starving person. The best illustration of subjective value and the nature of utility, as something unmoored from objects themselves, is the Diamonds and Water Paradox. Diamonds represent something far more value to most people than the equivalent weight of water, but to a person in the desert without any water, a cup of water is worth more than a mountain of diamonds.
Utility is not an entirely useless concept, but it can lead to a scarcity mentality when we start to think of ourselves as maximizers, who need to squeeze every last drop of experiential goodness out of life. That manifests scarcity in one’s life.
I’m reminded of a phrase suggested by @ShaneClaiborne in his book, “The Irresistible Revolution: Living As an Ordinary Radical”:
“I would suggest we need a third way, neither the prosperity gospel, nor the poverty gospel but a gospel of abundance, rooted in a theology of enough.”
The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical
Living as an Ordinary RadicalMany of us find ourselves caught somewhere between unbelieving activists and inactive…
A gospel of abundance rooted in a theology of enough.