Scarcity As Verb, Not Noun

People compete with each other for scarce resources.  All resources are scarce.  That is the basic assumption of the western, economic-based view of the world.  The resources, the nouns, are scarce. There are only so many toothbrushes or hamburgers available.  They are scarce nouns.  So, the world is full of scarce nouns, right?  Some say yes, others say no.

Let’s start with the people who have most influenced the economic thinking that permeates western thinking today.  As Harvard economist Professor Mankiw writes, “Economics is the study of how society manages its scarce resources” (Mankiw, N. Gregory. Principles of Economics. Fourth ed. Mason, OH: Thomson, 2008, p 4).  Nobel laureates in economics, MIT economist Professor Samuelson and Yale economist Professor Nordhaus agreed, “Economics is the study of how societies use scarce resources” (Samuelson, Paul A., and William D. Nordhaus. Economics. Fifteenth ed. Boston: Irwin McGraw-Hill, 1995, p 4).

The definition of economics as the study of scarce resources is often attributed to London School of Economics Professor Robbins, who famously wrote, “Economics is a science which studies human behavior as a relationship between ends and scarce means which have alternative uses…Everywhere we turn, if we choose one thing we must relinquish others which, in different circumstances, we would wish not to have relinquished. Scarcity of means to satisfy ends of varying importance is an almost ubiquitous condition of human behavior” (Robbins, Lionel. An Essay of the Nature & Significance of Economic Science. Second ed. London: Macmillan and Co., 1945, p 15-16).

So are nouns scarce?  Columbia University economic historian Professor Polanyi said no. “Polanyi suggests.. ‘to situations in which insufficiency induces choice between the alternative uses of the goods’, and should be used to denote a relationship between means and ends rather than ‘as an adjective appropriate to qualify things of goods’ in which the element of choice is absent” (Dale, Gareth. Karl Polanyi: The Limits of the Market. Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2018, p 111).  Polanyi says that what might be perceived to be scarce is the relationship between means and ends, the verb of how people access resources, not the resources themselves.

Author Gareth Dale further clarifies Polanyi’s perspective, in that “scarcity cannot be assessed independently of its meanings in a given cultural context. In modern market economics scarcity becomes generalized: since everything is interconnected, everything is scarce.  By contrast, consider the Mbuti Pygmies, who, the anthropologist Colin Turnbull discovered, envision their forest habitat as benevolent and lavish, or the Trobriand Islanders, who normally grow ‘twice as much yam fruit as they need and allow it to rot.  They phrase their economic life in terms of plenty, while according to our standards they are surrounded by scarcity.  We, according to their standards, are surrounded by plenty but phrase our economic life in terms of scarcity” (Dale, Gareth. Karl Polanyi: The Limits of the Market. Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2018, p 112).

What might be perceived as scarce are verbs, the “how” people access nouns.  Certain cultural worldviews with accompanying political and social structures might make the means to the ends scarce.  From this perspective, the nouns can be replenished over time, so maybe what is scarce is the accessing of the nouns, the verbs.

What do you see?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.