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About Values


Satya Sivaraman

CULTURE AND PUBLIC ACTION
Edited by Vijayendra Rao and Michael Walton
Permanent Black, New Delhi, 2004, pp. 442, Rs. 395.00

VOLUME XXIX NUMBER 2 February 2005

The well-known Kannada novelist U.R.Anantamurthy once wrote about the dilemma he had trying to buy a present for his grandmother. There was nothing, he discovered, in the marketplace that would have gladdened the heart of his grandma, who with her simple needs and expectations, was least interested in the consumerist toys that mesmerize our contemporary world.   That is a grandmother, from a bygone era, whom many of us would recognize instantly from our own personal experiences. The anti-market, anti-consumerist, non-acquisitive personality whose love cannot be bought with anything that takes money to acquire. Before I explain why I recall this anecdote let me say something about my four-year-old daughter also, who is the perfect counterpoint to Ananthamurthy’s granny in our times. Every now and then she makes these simple crayon paintings—works of child art that are valuable only to me, my wife and no one else. Just as the market has nothing to buy in the market this little girl has nothing to sell to the market and yet manages to make priceless products.   I bring up this discussion only because all such behaviour flies in the face of the assumptions of contemporary economic theory and economists, who fit perfectly into the Wildean observation about ‘those who know the price of everything and the value of nothing’. Building their models based on the axiom that ‘Man is a rational animal’, over the decades, they have systematically ignored or played down everything in human societies that cost nothing and fetch no price—love, kindness, generosity, faith—all of which defy the notion of human beings as strictly utilitarian creatures.   The result has been a situation whereby mainstream economic theory has become more and more mathematical, abstract and incapable of explaining ‘actually existing’ economic behaviour, especially when it goes against common notions of what constitutes ‘rationality’ itself. So for example most economists can’t understand why there are large numbers of people, alienated by urban, industrial living who want to run away from wealth and become hippies. Nor can they fathom the fierce rejection of economic ‘development’ by indigenous people who don’t think digging up their ancestral graves to get oil is such a good idea.   Explanations of such seemingly ‘irrational’ behaviour have usually come from sociologists, anthropologists and even political scientists, more clued in as they are to human motives that have nothing to do with ...


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