Mises Wire

Clarifying Scarcity: The Garden of Eden

One of the first laws of economics—in fact, the condition that makes economics possible and necessary—is scarcity. On page one of Basic Economics, Thomas Sowell wrote, “Without scarcity, there is no need to economize—and therefore no economics.”

While defining scarcity and its critical role in economics, I like to ask my students in a Christian school a question to tease this out: Would scarcity have existed in the Garden of Eden?

Apparently Bob Murphy has tackled just this question in his podcast episode titled “Would the Laws of Economics Be True in the Garden of Eden?” Christian theologian and professor Abner Chou identifies economics and scarcity as having entered the world during the Fall of Genesis 3. Economists use the language of the “veil of tears” from the curse found in Genesis (3:17–19). A review of the book What Happened in the Garden?describes the chapter on human endeavor and economics by professor R.W. Mackey:

Professor of Business Administration R.W. Mackey offers a helpful exploration of how we would expect the historical Fall to impact human enterprise. First, the Fall introduced distortion into our communication, making it harder to understand each other because we’re corrupted in a corrupted environment. Mixed signals, and deceptive signals, are common. Second, economic scarcity: man would work hard and compete for an uncertain yield that would deteriorate over time. Third, management became about damage control and holding people accountable. And this is of course what we face all the time in the fallen world of human enterprise. (italics added)

At first glance, this might seem simply to be a speculative question under conditions that do not currently exist; however, like Robinson Crusoe, the Garden of Eden helps us clarify the meaning of scarcity. What would be true under conditions of perfection and superabundance? Does superabundance really mean the literal absence of scarcity? Would scarcity really not exist? How exactly do we define scarcity?

Further, scarcity, superabundance, and Edenic conditions are also important concepts to clarify because many claim that they have some solution to unlock Eden, almost inevitably via the state or the abandonment of economic laws.

Literal Scarcity—Space-Time

Even under the conditions of the most profound superabundance, where all needs and wants are satisfied, in the Garden of Eden, there would still be the literal constraints of space and time. Humans are limited by physical space and actions always take place in time. Even in the Garden of Eden, man’s experience was one of temporality and finitude. This is what makes it necessary to rank our preferences. Our wants are competitive relative to one another; therefore, we must choose when, where, and how to satisfy our wants. Milton Shapiro wrote in his excellent book Foundations of a Market-Price System,

Even in a world of absolute abundance of physical means, such as the Garden of Eden, all wants would remain competitive. Why? For one thing, there is the scarcity of time: for human beings there are only twenty-four hours in a day, even in the Garden of Eden, and since every action takes time, there cannot be enough time to accomplish all of one’s goals in a given time period. So, even with an abundance of other means at one’s disposal, only some wants can be favored at any one time; other wants will have to stand aside for later attention.

Scarcity does not mean something is imperfect or morally deficient, rather it means that it is limited. Man in space-time, the only context which we experience as humans, always limits experiences. Opportunity costs—the forgone alternatives of a given action—would still exist. The Christian is still within orthodoxy to say that man always experiences scarcity, but God does not. Hans-Hermann Hoppe likewise wrote of the literal scarcity of physical space, even in the Garden of Eden:

In the Garden of Eden only two scarce goods exist: the physical body of a person and its standing room. Crusoe and Friday each have only one body and can stand only at one place at a time. Hence, even in the Garden of Eden conflicts between Crusoe and Friday can arise: Crusoe and Friday cannot occupy the same standing room simultaneously without coming thereby into physical conflict with each other. Accordingly, even in the Garden of Eden rules of orderly social conduct must exist—rules regarding the proper location and movement of human bodies. And outside the Garden of Eden, in the realm of scarcity, there must be rules that regulate not only the use of personal bodies but also of everything scarce so that all possible conflicts can be ruled out. This is the problem of social order. (italics added)

In another article, Hoppe writes, “Note that even in the Garden of Eden, a person’s body, the space occupied by that body, and time would still be scarce and to that extent political economy and philosophy would still have a task, however limited, to fulfill.”

Furthermore, there arguably would still be scarcity of knowledge. Being limited, humans were still not omniscient. Even if free from error, man would still have to learn. No human would possess infinite knowledge.

Scarcity and Superabundance

Murray Rothbard writes, “Greed will continue until the Garden of Eden arrives, when everything is superabundant, and we don’t have to worry about economics at all. We haven’t of course reached that point yet.”

While there are literal time-space limits, sometimes a good is so superabundant that it is no longer considered an economic good, but rather a general condition of economic welfare. The classic example of this is breathing air. Rothbard explains, “It is obvious that there is a scarcity of this consumers’ good [a sandwich] as there is for all direct means; otherwise it would always be available, like air, and would not be the object of action.”

Does superabundance mean that there is no scarcity?

To demonstrate the reality of literal scarcity, even amid superabundance, I ask, why can’t all people live on private islands or beachfront property? But the truth depends upon how much land there is and how many people there are. Yes, there is a fixed amount of literal land, but if there are only three people on earth then land is effectively not scarce as far as those individuals are concerned. In this sense, the Israelites were promised “a land where you will eat food without scarcity, in which you will not lack anything” (Deuteronomy 8:9). Again, Hoppe seems to identify Edenic superabundance as lack of scarcity:

Alone on his island, Robinson Crusoe can do whatever he pleases. For him, the question concerning rules of orderly human conduct—social cooperation—simply does not arise. Naturally, this question can only arise once a second person, Friday, arrives on the island. Yet even then, the question remains largely irrelevant so long as no scarcity exists. Suppose the island is the Garden of Eden; all external goods are available in superabundance. They are “free goods,” just as the air that we breathe is normally a “free” good. Whatever Crusoe does with these goods, his actions have repercussions either with respect to his own future supply of such goods nor regarding the present or future supply of the same goods for Friday (and vice versa). Hence, it is impossible that there could ever be a conflict between Crusoe and Friday concerning the use of such goods. A conflict is only possible if goods are scarce. Only then will there arise the need to formulate rules that make orderly—conflict-free—social cooperation possible. (italics added)

Hoppe writes, “Political economy begins with the recognition of scarcity. It is only because we do not live in the Garden of Eden that we are concerned about the problem of economic efficiency.” (italics added)

Edenic Pretensions

Many economists believe that the Garden of Eden is possible now, but that beliefs in scarcity, private property, and free markets prevent accessing this superabundant world. Some Christian economists apparently even think that it is our belief in scarcity which causes scarcity. Economics deals with the economic reality of scarcity so misunderstanding it or attempting to deny it leads to disaster.

Policy prescriptions that promise access to “Eden,” unrealized superabundance, or postscarcity almost always inevitably look to the secular political state as the solution, pretending scarcity does not exist. Ironically, the more scarcity is misunderstood and denied, the more intensely scarcity is experienced. Perhaps that is part of the curse. In the words of Ludwig von Mises,

The champions of socialism call themselves progressives, but they recommend a system which is characterized by rigid observance of routine and by a resistance to every kind of improvement. They call themselves liberals, but they are intent upon abolishing liberty. They call themselves democrats, but they yearn for dictatorship. They call themselves revolutionaries, but they want to make the government omnipotent. They promise the blessings of the Garden of Eden, but they plan to transform the world into a gigantic post office. (italics added)

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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