economic value in terms of pie: an analogy for communism, capitalism, prosperity and social justice

The best kind of science science serves to advance some aspect of human endeavor (e.g. health, understanding, wonder). It is a contribution. The same can be said for art, engineering, or commercial enterprise. Work done in this manner will create a world far better than one where there is a perfect cornucopia of material prosperity. In fact, a culture of service is more idealistic than a utopic vision of material prosperity. And I believe that it’s achievable, while state-sponsored universal material prosperity isn’t.

Why do I say this? It comes down to pie. Would you rather have a disproportionately small piece of a very large pie (and get more pie), or a equal share of a small pie (and get less pie)? I think, ultimately, a lot of people would rather take the lesser quantity of pie as long as it was ‘fair’.

That doesn’t make rational sense, but we are not rational creatures. We are spiteful, semi-domesticated primates. Monkeys will do the same thing: they will give up their own small treat to see a rival denied a large one.


The maximal economic condition would be capital highly concentrated in the hands of those who continually invest it in labor-saving technology. This is the ‘trickle down’ notion. The workers are paid the minimum viable amount, since they will fail to invest wisely any excess. This produces a huge surplus of economic goods, but the world is divided into two groups: those who can afford to have any/all of the goods that they want, and those who can afford just enough that they are motivated to work very hard for just a little bit more. This assumes, of course, that there is a good way to catch cheaters: people who end up with a large slice without making any pie at all.

Here’s the crux: under these idealized conditions, the most people get the most pie possible (that’s good) but the distribution is not fair (and that’s bad). Even the people who are working really hard for a disproportionately small piece get a lot more than they would if the pie were smaller, but they feel disenfranchised because they have relatively little. So what do you want: a fair slice, or a large pie?

That has been the central economic question of the 20th century: communism (fair slice) or capitalism (large pie)? Could there be a third alternative? I think there is. I think that it’s possible to see past the total numerical economic value and see more fundamental needs. I think we can work on those. And that can co-exist with either system. The big upshot is this: I see the world arguing over the big pie versus the fair slice but what I want to see is people wondering if maybe they would like a different sort of pie altogether.