Limited Good

Is “Good” a limited commodity?

"No, It's Mine!" (c)2009 Randy D. Bosch

Much of what we see, hear and read in “the news” focuses on telling us that we live in a closed-loop, limited resources environment – whether the world as a whole, a nation, a specific environment, community, family or relationship.  Those who have “less” of something than others are told that “justice” demands they receive their “fair share”, while those who are seen to have “more” are either browbeaten, cajoled or taxed to redistribute what we have to the less fortunate.  Often the assessment of conditions is correct; sometimes those promoting resolution are not self-serving, ocassionally “good” results occur for a brief time.  Defining “less”, “fair share”, “justice” and “too much” proves to be very difficult, and often is clear only in the eye of the beholder from one viewpoint or another!

Certainly the impulse and action toward righting real inequities, correcting verifiable error, breaking badly placed barriers, unleashing constructive potential, and truly sharing – even sacrificing -to help others in need, is critical to moral, ethical, and sometimes peaceful, life.  Peasant cultures (and our allegedly sophisticated “post-modern” culture is still a “peasant culture” in many, many ways) may limit good potential for the whole community if they seek the “lowest common denominator” of Limited GoodThey may limit destructive community-wide risk of loss – or loss to the “least among them”  in the same manner. 

The Image of Limited Good essentially states that, within a community (from family-size to world-wide), there is a limited amount of good to go around, shared by all.  If someone succeeds, has a bumper crop, even gains a family member through a wedding or child, the gain in “good” must have come at the expense of someone else!   Your gain of a son-in-law or daughter-in-law (plus her dowry!) removes “good” potential from the originating family, in this system.  Thus, jealousy or accusations of some type of “profiteering” or “theft” from others may readily be leveled toward those experiencing good fortune.

Similarly, if someone in the community suffered a loss – of a family member, a crop, a patent, of possessions, or of health – someone in the rest of the community must have benefitted from that loss.  Therefore, the community might identify someone (a scapegoat, in some cultures – like ours!) who may have been coincidentally enriched in possessions, fame, position, relationships or physical condition – and desire justice from them. They might also fear the “justifiable” attempt by one suffering loss to attempt regaining what was rightfully theirs, a fear of “payback”, “revenge” or simply the turmoil that can occur in restoring the pre-existing balance of conditions.

For example, the concept of the “potlatch” or wedding feast in some cultures was developed as a way for a family gaining a daughter-in-law or son-in-law to not only celebrate, but to “give back” to the family losing that individual by lavishly spending on a great feast.  Or, in the health-concern department, someone sneezing – showing a minor loss of health – may be greeted with a “bless you” in reply, to offset the apparent small loss with a small benefit.

The concept presumes a desire to maintain a “steady state” community to the extent possible where “internal” influences were at play (outside impacts beyond the control of anyone were a different story)!

“Alas, the glass has become half-empty, what a loss.”

“Well, then, let’s just make it become half-full and everything will be all right again!”

Renowned cultural anthropologist and Professor of Anthropology, Emeritus, George M. Foster, Jr. (b.1913, d.2006), long time professor at the University of California, Berkeley (and one of my professors!), among many valuable and rigorous works, developed the concept of the Image of Limited Good, based upon his long study of peasant peoples in Mexico, particularly in the area of Tzintzuntsan.  Competing anthopologists disagreed with his theory, but it is worthy of consideration in analyzing the world around us today.

Our culture lionizes those whose achievements are outstanding (including some professors!).  Comments bemoaning the death of a great leader in one field or another often include “She was the last of the great…”; or, “A great man, we will never see his like again!”; or, “We can’t go on without them!”.  Perhaps these comments are a way of spreading the loss across the empathetic portion of our community while sharing testimony of grief with mourning family, friends or business associates, a small re-leveling in the zero-sum game of Limited Good. They certainly are less than respectful of the hardworking folks who keep on keeping on, and therefore may sometimes be less dramatic or sincere than the rhetoric would hope to convey.

Does your life, family, business, town, country function in a “limited good” system?  We’re being told so, sometimes correctly, sometimes as hyperbole to advocate a cause, sometimes fraudulently to allow someone else to enrich themselves at our expense economically, in possession, in political power.  “A shortage?  We must all suffer together or justice will not prevail”  “A glut?  You must have taken advantage of others – fork it over!” 

We now hear daily about “peak oil” (long ago, was it “peak coal”?), “rising seas” (not long ago it was “new ice age”), “exhausted forests” (what happened to that kudzu taking over the South?),”wasteful suburbs” (go back to renting a box in the city, financed by those who brought you the third derivative mortage!), often without enough accountable, verifiable evidence to ascertain which advocacy is truth and which is  hype while advocates of truth and good cannot understand society’s ambivalence to their cause.

As part of learning from the past (Recapitulation), correcting error to get back on a better path (Reformation), and moving ahead creatively without damaging others or foundational resources (Renaissance), consider whether the “Image of Limited Good” defines your life, business or community.  Work with others to determine to what is limited, and to what extent, what can be ethically accomplished to change or accept that reality – whichever proves under examination to be correct and the greater good.  Some responses will impel action to achieve greater sustainability or greater resiliency.  Others will demonstrate the need to “get real” and get real expectations in place to respond with the greatest good, not limited good, and to eliminate or mitigate negative effects.  Then,

Action is the new competence! 

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About randysrules

From a professional background in architecture, community and regional planning, urban design, leadership, and fine arts, this blog provides insights on ethics, leadership, architecture/planning/urban design, Venice, and whatever intrigues me at the time. Enjoy!
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