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Human Physiology as a Model for a Human Economy

Perhaps we should listen to and learn from our own bodies, regarding how to organize a successful and equitable economy.

In the human body, the heart does not demand a higher salary, despite the fact that it works non-stop, with no time out and no vacations, and despite its universal reputation for exceptional goodness, kindness, and love. The digestive tract, the muscles, even the brain, get considerable time off—not so the heart. But the heart does not mind. The gratification associated with its work is sufficient payment.

I suppose that if Adam Smith were in charge of the human body’s economy, or if Milton Friedman, or one of many other Nobel Prize winning economists were in charge, the heart would be encouraged to demand a higher salary; the liver would ask for bonus “hazard pay” because of its frequent exposure to toxins; the kidneys would hold out for higher pay due to the unpleasant job of filtering nitrogenous waste products; the colon would argue for more than the kidneys for constantly dealing with malodorous gases and undigested waste.

According to these economists, each organ should insist on considerable profit to compensate them for the unique and essential service they have developed and provide. After all, their services are very much in demand and in short supply (we have only one liver, e.g.). And, besides, it’s their obligation to their shareholders (all the cells in the organ, I suppose) to make as much profit as possible. It is their moral duty to exploit their opportunities, particularly since some of those profits (from the kidney’s hard work, e.g.) might trickle down and benefit the poorer, less fortunate and less esteemed organs, like the scrotum and other untouchables.

And, of course, there would be very little regulation in the Milton Friedman-concocted physiologic economy. In the spirit of competition, a clone of renal cells would be encouraged to develop into its own kidney, so that we could have three kidneys—more freedom of choice. Even if some cells in the pancreas were to transform into a pancreatic cancer, this would be tolerated, too, because too much regulation might strangle the entrepreneurial spirit; besides it is too judgmental, too moralistic, too intrusive to forbid “start-up” companies, even if their product might be unhealthy or even malignant. Under Adam Smith and Milton Friedman, even ill-intentioned enterprises must have the freedom to create their own businesses and enjoy what profits they can make. After all, individual liberty is the most important right to protect—not the right to benefit as a group.

A human physiology designed by these economists would lead to utter chaos within the human body:

Thousands of years ago, the human body figured out that an Adam Smith model would not work. The heart realized that it could not function well when poisoned by the uremia that results when the kidneys go on strike; the brain realized that it is hard to think while in hepatic coma when the liver shuts down in protest for higher wages. Constipation results when the colon ceases to cooperate. Under such strained economic relations, the entire body suffers—from fatigue, malfunction, pain, and a depressed brain and psyche.

The human body quickly figured out that it functioned best and felt the healthiest and happiest when all organs were enthusiastically and generously collaborating in a spirit of doing what’s in the best interests of the entire organism. This conclusion did not arise out of moralistic “do-gooder-ism.” It arose out of necessity and was further fueled by the positive physical and psychological effects of altruism. It happened because of natural selection, not because of any moralism. It happened simply because it worked, and other models simply did not.

Those organisms that insisted on a physiologic organization based on individualism, self-interest, de-regulation, and cut throat competition did not last long. Those characteristics proved to be fatally flawed, unsustainable, incompatible with life. Those organisms failed to pass the tests of evolution. They quickly died out.

We Human beings owe our very existence to the fact that, early on, we developed a human physiology that is based on altruistic collaboration and appropriate regulation, appropriate work-loads, rich diversity, and mutual respect. Without that model of organization, without the astonishingly efficient and capable human physiologic economy that evolved, we would never have made it.

Human beings should be enormously grateful that we happened to develop this wonderful model of physiologic organization (economic altruism, we could call it)—a model that is responsible for our evolutionary survival.

However, instead of being grateful, many of the most ardent advocates of capitalism deny even the very concept of evolution, and denigrate the very principles that have so successfully governed our human physiology, and they insist on a set of organizational principles that is suicidal. What sense does that make? Perhaps these proponents of capitalism should re-think their position on evolution, re-think their model of organization, and face the reality of the consequences of their model.

If the altruistic model of human physiologic organization, that evolution selected, has worked so well for human beings (i.e. has been responsible for our very existence and has been the key to our health and happiness), then why would we not choose that same model for organization of our human society and its economy? If this model has worked so well for all individual and inter-connected components of the human organism (all of its cells and organs) and has worked so well for the human organism as a whole, why do we not use the same model for human society—for the sake of all of the individual members of society, as well as for the sake of the society as a whole?

Why, instead, have we chosen a social and economic model that miserably failed the test of evolution more than 200,000 years ago and that, if implemented in our own bodies, would kill us? Why would we continue a model that has already proven, throughout the past two centuries, to be terribly toxic to billions of people, as well as to the earth itself?

Why, of all people, would physicians, who know and appreciate human physiology, support a health care economic model based on capitalism, rather than one based on the wonderful model demonstrated by our own human physiology. Why would so many physicians continue to support the capitalist economic model in the society as a whole, when, every day, they witness and depend upon the marvelous elegance and efficiency of the economic model exhibited by our own human physiology—when, every day, they see the horrible illnesses that result when aggressive cut throat competitive behavior thrives inside the human body (cancer) and outside (poverty, etc.).

Why don’t physicians, and all of us, recognize these unacceptable side effects of a capitalist mentality, and work toward emulation of the most highly evolved organizational economic model ever created—our own human physiology?