Is unfettered economic rationalism damaging our planet and social systems?

These trucks of the great oceans distribute an almost infinite number of consumer goods, between all trading nations and across the world. This system is one of the key ‘engine rooms’ of capitalism.

As I contemplated the term economic rationalism, and searched online, I was advised by a Wikipedia entry that this is an Australian term. Therefore a brief local perspective. This refers to giving a consumer (someone with money and a desire to acquire some discretionary merchandise) what they want. Provide a capitalist system where individuals are free to spend (or save, per lower taxation or cynically, tax minimisation or avoidance) as they choose, largely free of regulatory systems or government oversight. This may and often does apply also to businesses of all sizes, including multi-nationals.

Some may know this as free market capitalism, or neoliberalism, with deregulation, small government and low taxes (especially for business) encouraged by such proponents.

Nevertheless, as a mental health practitioner, I view such philosophies and ideologies through the prism of what is ultimately helpful and healthy for most individuals, families and communities, including nations and governed precincts.

So lets resort to first principles. Neuroscience even, and primary functions of three discrete areas of the human brain. These three discrete areas (refer discussions of the triune brain for further details) are as follows. The first is the hind-brain associated with survival, instinct and unconscious processing. The second is the mid-brain or limbic system, which we can refer to as the emotional brain. The third area is the cerebral cortex associated with high order processing often know as cognition, including abstract thought, language, problem solving and decision making, planning, memory, inhibition of primal urges, etc. For shorthand purposes, these are the number 1, 2 and 3 brain systems, respectively.

In terms of healthy human development, the number 1 system is largely developed and operational at birth, the number 2 system develops in the early months and years of an infant’s life, while the number 3 system starts development after the number 2 systems achieves critical mass. Effectively the brain develops ‘bottom up’ whereby the number 2 system provides the scaffolding for the subsequent development of the number 3 system.

Sadly, some people’s emotional brain does not develop optimally or sufficiently and accordingly, their higher order processing (use of the number 3 system) can be compromised. Their brain may not be adequately integrated, we may also describe such people as lacking emotional intelligence (more of that to come in a future post).

Traditionally, rational behaviour was prescribed as meaning reasonable behaviour, based on intelligent thought, consequential thinking and logic elicited without undue influence from an individual’s prevailing emotional state. However, in the context of my topic, the rational part of economic rationalism (or substitute neoliberalism or free market capitalism) has been associated with providing to people what they want, making the ideological assumption that they should be free to choose their behaviour, and because of this free choice (refer free choice theory), then that must be rational.

In terms of the brain systems noted above and thus a psychological perspective, I do not perceive economic rationalism to be rational (reasonable) behaviour in a purely logical sense. Instead, I would propose that this approach to capitalism, markets, governance and policy making is actually quite emotive, is engaging of the number 2 system, is satisfying a person’s instinct to be gratified, is egocentric and dismissive of consequences and so carries the utilitarian risk (for the common good) of being damaging to our communities. Indeed, in the context of climate change, it may be damaging to our planet, especially if you factor in that all too often individual behaviour results in collective damage to the larger group (see my recent post at for a related perspective).

My thesis is thus: Economic rationalism is a more primal behaviour incorporating the number 1 and 2 brain systems, associated with negative emotions including fear of missing out (FOMO) yet utilising the number 3 system to devise justification for acting so selfishly. From a mental health perspective, that is not healthy. Poor decision making arises accordingly, a person sustains their needs for on-going emotional gratification and so are less inclined to access their thinking brain, and so consider wise and helpful behaviour, especially for others.

Simply put, our planet and its environmental systems require wisdom (and positive emotions powering motivation to act, being the number 2 and 3 systems working together constructively) from its human inhabitants, if it is to sustain its diversity of flora and fauna. The planet does not care though, as its life-time is measured in billions of years. However, for humans, if we allow economic rationalism to flourish, we will not. Importantly for those of us who care, it is the future generations that will be damned, and so we carry a responsibility to overcome our primal behaviours, sooner rather than later. Are we willing to be so reasonable and kind?

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