By Prof. Martin Ike-Muonso
Human efforts and activities avail little if any at all when they do not lead to significant levels of well-being. This appears to be substantially correct regardless of the facet from which it is considered. This truth is strengthened by the desirability of well-being itself. Human beings want to be socially and economically satisfied, healthy and happy. That easily understandable mystery explains in part why there are varying perspectives on the appreciation of an explanation of this subject matter. In their list are the motivational speakers, economists, psychologists, mystics, religious people etc. all trying to demystify and teach how to prosper. At some point, the so-called motivational speakers, spiritual teachers and think-tanks dominated the thought-space of prosperity. Each with their ‘elegant’ ideas and understanding of how the daily activities of an economic agent can lead to the attainment of prosperity. In some instances, such understanding and resultant prescriptions were as extreme as “just pray your way through to prosperity”. In such situations, all that one needed to do would be to keep praying until prosperity ‘falls from the sky’. At another extreme where motivational speakers hold sway, what the “to-be-initiated” person needs to do is to be guided by their experiences and learnings and may have to master a list of do’s and dont’s that should supposedly export one to the realm where well-being is attained.
The subject matter of prosperity and how it can be attained is a complex one that cuts across several domains: religious, economic, social/societal. It may also be correct to say that there is also a vertical dimension in prosperity analysis: at the individual level, organizational level and at increasingly larger aggregation levels of the economy. Whether it be at the horizontal or vertical dimension level, there are no clean separations between the interpretational position held by any group. The intersections and fluidity are expected marks that punctuate the complexity of the subject. So, it will not be out of place to say for instance that there are eco-religious or psycho-social dimensions and so on. But more broadly, the interactive combination of the horizontal domains (religious, economic, social/societal) and the vertical dimension (individual, organizational, social/societal) as an intersection matrix may provide a broad structure for studying this subject. Since the theme of prosperity is complex using this matrix to explore the topic under different political and legal contexts may provide practical guide into the matter.
Before the exploration of domain/dimension interactions under different environments and contexts (political and legal), it behoves to provide a helicopter-level conceptual clarification of the underlying dimensions a little more. Starting with religion, it may be right to conclude that religious people view prosperity as something that can wholly be divinely given; some sort of unmerited blessing. While some of them may emphasize the need for some degree of self-discipline and efforts as desiderata for the blessing, there is a leaning towards the unmerited ‘divine gift’ perspective. Obtaining this gift is typically achieved through giving (particularly to the things of God/church) to God who is the ultimate giver. This, for instance, underlies the Pentecostal Christians’ emphasis on tithing as the activator of the good. All religions and orthodox Christians do not seem to share this view in its completeness. At the other extreme in the religious dimension are those that believe that prosperity can be attained through a series of spiritual practices. It is in this category that one may recognize the use of magical influences or more moderately some spiritual practices such as mind consciousness to obtain riches. Again, it is debatable whether each of these approaches taken alone can deliver prosperity.
One often asked question, in appreciating the journey to prosperity, is whether riches or wealth is either synonymous with well-being; or whether the latter is brought about by the former. The wealth versus well-being dilemma challenges the economic perspective to the prosperity concept. While for most economists the average periodic income is core to achieving prosperity at all – as it is the means to the acquisition of the elements of well-being – income taken alone does not imply prosperity. Whereas high income may be able to purchase high standards of living, it is not always the case. The knowledge required to even identify and appropriately allocate these monetary resources to what makes life more enjoyable may be required. Again, in several underdeveloped, countries many wealthy individuals and organizations may not enjoy as much well-being as much as their counterparts in other climes may do because of difficult environments of business, absence of requisite social infrastructure and burdensome State regulations. It is therefore because of this complexity in understanding and explaining the concept that many indexes for measuring prosperity beyond income have sprung up. Many of these have included the human development index, the happiness index and so on. Yet regardless of the disparities in the way and manner prosperity is appreciated and interpreted, one confluence factor is monetary income.
Albeit a biblical quotation, “money answers all things” seems to be at the heart of the economists’ appreciation of prosperity. Money as a means of exchange (and store of value) equips the holder with the capacity to trade some portions of it in exchange for whatever level of well-being it can reasonably purchase. This includes the purchase of the knowledge that is required to discover new frontiers of attainable well-being as well as the health and longevity required to live it out. And as it is well known, the routes to earning this income and the associated well-being is through entrepreneurship and markets. The former presents the opportunity for the discovery of avenues where one’s abilities can be exchanged for income; where residual incomes can easily be made through the identification of market coordination gaps. The latter is the platform upon which the exchange and the eventual earnings that come from it is conducted. Consequently, economists concern about the attainment of prosperity will therefore largely revolve around ensuring that those elements that sustain true entrepreneurship and markets are made to work optimally at peak levels.
These will comprise the array of rules, policies and projects that help in promoting nigh-efficient markets and solid entrepreneurship.
Social/societal interpretation of prosperity may depend on the prevailing culture of that society and interactions with other cultures. For instance, in some – particularly primitive – African society, polygamy is celebrated as a sign of wealth and to some extent a good indicator of well-being.
Much of this seems to have changed though and is replaced more with ostentatious assets such as luxurious and flashy cars, foods, houses, clothing and pieces of jewellery. Some argue that ostentatious living may not necessarily imply well-being. The debate hinges on the thinking that the proclivity to ostentatious living may as well just be a habit or addiction. If this line of argument is upheld, then it follows that such persons merely sacrifice other complementing aspects of decent quality life such as good health and learning – considered imperative to attaining well-being – to maintain such ostentatious lifestyle. Some also extend this argument by claiming that like addictions generally, the boundaries of morality may sometimes be scaled-over to maintain it. For instance, in several countries and cultures, many of those who are into drugs and fraud are believed to do so to maintain this life of opulence which they are already addicted to; which blurs the borderline between addictive ostentation and underground activities.
But who defines the boundaries of morality? Does the acquisition of income-for-well-being through ways and means that are considered immoral/illegal such as prostitution (in countries where they are banned) make it less the attainment of prosperity that the one acquired without being caught by the law? What is the place of morality and law in the prosperity discussion? Do the means to prosperity justify the attained well-being? There is no doubt that answers to many of the raised concerns will vary depending on contexts and climes. It will also vary depending on whether one is considering prosperity at the level of the individual, and organization and or a country. Again, the level of aggregation may cause slight variations in the eventual answer.
At the other extreme, it may be right to ask whether a seemingly – self-certified – contented person at meagre income be considered prosperous. Many seem content with what they have; the height they have attained and are not motivated by any factor to push further to achieve higher levels of well-being. Now, while these persons may seem happy and satisfied, they may be glaringly much lower in the comparative utils of well-being that are available to them to enjoy. In evaluating individual prosperity dimensions, how do we categorize this group? Are they prosperous? This also brings in the issue of whether prosperity means well-being that can easily be compressed into the income level, knowledge, health/longevity and the capacity to sustain all three at high levels in the long-run. Again, to what extent can the long-run escape from poverty considered a relative tendency to prosperity? Let us now begin this journey.
Professor Ike-Muonso is the Country Director of Baywood Foundation as well as the Chief Transformation Officer of GTI Capital Group