Every one of us knows lack,
We hunger for bread, crave love, and lack meaning.
Lack leaves us restless, raging against the world and ourselves.
But despite its familiarity, lack remains a mystery.
—From Sublime Thirst, a documentary exploring the Phenomenon of Lack
Lack is known to everyone on the Earth. It comes in diverse attires and under manifold names: incompleteness, finiteness, deficiency, imperfection, insufficiency, scarcity. All of these terms have negative connotations. They suggest that something ought to be present, but is not. That something is missing or has been taken away. Intuitively, lack appears to be an unfortunate aspect of existence – a blemish, an all-embracing mistake, and hence, a cause of our instant and constant dissatisfaction.
Thus, it is difficult to assume that something as adverse as lack may be a purposeful element of being. Does it have any purpose? From scarcity of bread to lack of meaning or love, why can we never attain satisfaction? Why is there never “enough” goodness, money, knowledge, welfare, and beauty?
This essay explores the phenomenon of lack, the reasons behind its disguised nature, and brings forth insights on how a better understanding of this fundamental element of reality may change our perceptions of the world and relationships with oneself and others.
I was inspired to question the mystery of lack through my involvement in the transition from a socialist to a free market economy. When Lithuania embarked on the road to freedom, many people habitually objected to the monetization of services and commodities. Before the reforms, goods and services used to be “free” and had no price. Even when those “free” goods were actually not available or subject to long queues, severe deficits, and casual bribes, people would instinctively oppose the transition towards measuring and pricing goods and services. As time went by, I contemplated this intrinsic hostility to the free market economy. This quest brought me to a hypothesis that people are hostile to something that lies beyond economic life and reasoning – the very need to measure, calculate, and allocate resources, as well as to act in a cost-effective way.
This “something” is known to economists as Scarcity. Scarcity of resources is acknowledged as the prime precondition of economic action as well as a prerequisite of the discipline of economics per se. Yet, scarcity itself was never thoroughly examined, and it was never systematically questioned beyond the boundaries of the economic domain. No wonder many people believe that scarcity is simply a result of unjust allocation of resources, imperfect human action, or even a product of entrepreneurial greed. To many, scarcity appears to be a transitory and unlucky mistake, an outcome of a wrong social organization. In such a worldview, humanity is believed to be capable of abolishing scarcity altogether and “liberating” itself from any form of lack and imperfection.
Therefore, the understanding of the origin and the role of scarcity is pivotal to a person’s attitude towards economic and social order. Furthermore, it preordains our stance on the role of government and our relationship with liberty and justice.
Scarcity Beyond Economics
In order to uncover the origins of lack, let us look at the common denominator behind the numerous “lack of” that surround us. Let us search for the most universal, immanent, and fundamental features that are common in us and around us.
Philosophy and theology can help us penetrate the origins of this phenomenon and bring out the topic’s foremost thinkers. A fundamental reflection on the essence of lack could be traced back to Aristotle (384–322 BC). To explain reality, Aristotle identifies three primary causes of being: form, matter, and lack (στέρεσις, usually translated as privation). Origins have it in common that they are the first of which something either comes into being or is known (Barnes 1984). Those causes are necessary for the process of defining being itself and enabling the coming into being. For things to come into being, to exist, and change, it takes a) that which evolves; b) that which is in opposition to what evolves; and c) that out of which something evolves. According to Aristotle’s definition, a thing that evolves is the form, in opposition to it is lack, and those opposites operate in the matter.
This insight explains why lack is reflected in every becoming. A bud lacks a blossom and gradually acquires it; a human being lacks knowledge and pursues it; the will lacks the good and seeks the good. Lack is revealed as a core stimulus of any change, an integral feature of a dynamic reality and life in itself. Classical philosophers recognize that lack is a universal cause of change and an integral, ontological feature of becoming and being.
If philosophy assumes that lack belongs to the reality of being and explains it as one of the primary causes, why is it customary for philosophers to name it deficiency and privation? – We may admit that lack is a fragmentary topic even in this prime discipline: major findings of ancient and medieval thought were not taken forward. The knowledge of lack as an ontological category remained relatively incoherent and was barely pursued in social sciences.
Sociology, anthropology, and psychology all describe lack as experienced and transformed needs and desires. Lack may be anything people need or desire but have not yet attained. For human beings, lack is primarily a personal matter, something “I lack.” It, therefore, centers the question on whether there is a distinction between needs and desires, between “ought to be” and “might be”. Under this approach, the universal origin and meaning of lack are disguised and thus readily transformed into a matter of social justice. “From the point of view of anthropology and sociology, lack is fundamental,” and at the same time “in the area of sociality lack is surprisingly ‘bypassed’, both in practice and in theory” (Valantiejus 2016: 256–257).
Christian theology reinforces the philosophical insights and allows one to hermeneutically interpret the tensions with social disciplines. Theologians argue that lack appeared together with creation, and so it is an immanent attribute of being in body, time, and space. Lack may not be associated exclusively with sin or evil. The world and humanity are created in such a way that every created being is open to change inherent to its nature. In other words, everything is marked by lack and is open to advancement.
Since the ontological nature of lack is not properly acknowledged by the social sciences, lack is viewed as something negative, as misfortune, poverty, injustice, or an outcome of class struggle. The social sciences are oriented towards the elimination of scarcity and lack. A lost understanding of human imperfection may explain why lack is not perceived as a primordial element of reality. When humanity increasingly denies its imperfection, lack is seen as something that must be removed. This conviction is prevalent and inspires politicians to compete for who will promise to abolish more scarcities.
Returning to Economics: Deepening the Grasp on Regularities
By reviewing the perspectives of different disciplines, we may gradually reinforce the primary insight that scarcity is universal, intrinsic, and fundamental. It is astounding to discover that this hidden phenomenon stands so foundational in the hierarchy of being, that it is one of the three basic elements in this world. In its broadest sense Lack reveals itself as an underlying component of life, a catalyst for change and advancement.
Behind each “lack of ” lies universal lack, a principle that permeates everything. We come to the understanding that economic scarcity reflects only one, perhaps the most visible aspect of this phenomenon – that which manifests itself in the material and measurable domain. With this finding, we may fruitfully return to the field of economics. Here, the main question is: if scarcity, this prime condition of economic life, is one of the three elements of being, does it lead us to a deeper understanding of economic regularities and the emergence of institutions?
The works of the late scholastics offer insights that can intensify our understanding of the role of scarcity in the emergence and evolution of private property, value, and the mechanism of exchange. Work, property, exchange, competition, money – all are human responses to scarcity that enable us to deal with it – to create and multiply goods, to expand cooperation, to maintain peaceful co-existence and pursue advancement. All human economic activity evolved in an attempt to survive in the conditions of lack.
Theologian T. R. Malthus (1766–1834) is instrumental in understanding the dominant modern approach to scarcity. Thinking about the roots of poverty, he discovered scarcity as a universal phenomenon with natural causes such as uncontrollable population growth and limited production capacity. Malthus was concerned about poverty and considered scarcity in a negative light, as a kind of disorder. Malthus’ negative view of human reproductive capacity and underestimation of human liberty and creative power resulted in his well-known conclusion that humanity would soon be unable to feed itself.
Malthus did not foresee the opportunities that emerged thanks to the expansion of free economic relations and the industrial revolution. And yet, his insights remain extremely valuable. When we revisit them, we may understand that humanity would actually be facing a gloomy future had it not been for the vast multiplication of goods that became achievable thanks to liberty and the rise of economic institutions. Indirectly, Malthus reveals the contribution of the modern economy to the fortune of civilization: humanity is capable of feeding itself and thereby supporting a continuous growth in population.
Physiocrats in the 18th-century noted that things that were not scarce did not become economic goods. Economist Carl Menger (1840–1921) used no other feature, but scarcity to distinguish economic goods from non-economic goods and to explain how economic activity evolves. In defining goods that are scarce, Menger refrains from assessing whether people really need them and whether there is really a shortage of a certain good in the world. He draws a clear distinction between goods that are too abundant to be scarce and goods that are scarce and may be in shortage.
Menger’s criterion of scarcity disregards physical characteristics, origin, and other features of goods. It introduces a clear order in a complex world and helps us comprehend why economic activity evolved. Menger also explains that subjectivity is not an issue. The fact that air is an economic good in one case and is not in another is neither confusion nor contradiction. Rather, it is a logical consequence of the application of the criterion of scarcity.
Ludwig von Mises followed the line by arguing that the primary task of reason is to cope with the limits imposed by human nature and deal with scarcity. A thinking and acting man is coherent with the world of scarcity; a world in which all prosperity can only be achieved through hard work, through action which is “economic” (Mises 1999: 235).
It is worthwhile to look at the economics domain from the perspective of other disciplines. Theology sheds light on human limitedness and mortality, and thus clarifies the importance of those factors in the emergence of economizing stance and action. When the time of a mortal man becomes scarce, the economic perspective permeates all human life: people face the question of how to use scarce resources within the limitations of time in all aspects of life. It is essential that man is in constant need of energy: our bodies consume energy very quickly, so there is always a need for food to supply more energy. (Lahayne 2016). Accordingly, any usage of energy in labor forces us to seek surplus – this emphasis provides for a fresh outlook on the institution of profits.
Isn’t it incredible? – At the junction of the disciplines it is impossible to evoke a world without incompleteness, and therefore without economic activity, because there are things that cannot be multiplied, such as time, and, on the other hand, human desires are limitless. This paradigm can be observed not only in activities that are traditionally referred to as economic action, but also in other areas. For example, when we go for a walk, we renounce the pleasure of reading a book; when we read, we cannot play with our children. Isn’t it refreshing to comprehend that any human choice between alternative uses of limited time and resources requires economization? It is not the market that forces us to economize, but our human nature necessitates the emergence of the market as our helper.
The scarcity of time and resources alongside their alternative uses preordains the emergence of economic activity. Thus, human behavior that is intended to satisfy human needs with limited means that have alternative uses entails choice and contains an economic aspect (Šilėnas and Žukauskas 2016).
The Phenomenon that Hides Itself in Plentiful Wounds
Upon acquainting ourselves with the universal phenomena of lack, a hard question is inescapable. How could it happen that such a fundamental phenomenon is neglected and often unacknowledged? Why is its universality and immanency hidden from the human eye and even from the scholars’ outlook? – Scarcity and lack surround us everywhere in such a variety of forms and facets that we become wounded and blind and do not look for the common denominator behind those wounds.
We may start with the imprints of lack in human nature. Human beings are fallible, we are temporary, we lack knowledge and need the energy to keep us alive, and we are social beings, dependent on others. Thus we experience a lack of everything that surrounds us painfully and personally – as “I lack” and “I lack it now” – and do not look for the all-reaching meaning and origin of lack.
Since lack is not an entity, a being, but rather something that “is not”, its universality escapes us. That explains why people struggle to understand lack as a principle of origin. This knowledge is never acquired by the senses; it is attained only by a mental effort of deconstructing entities and searching for their causes. At the same time lack is hard to think of, because it immediately calls for action. It “impacts human beings as a catalyst, triggers the internal engine, incentivizing action, hope, and goal-setting. This evolving activity diverts attention from the possibility of reflection” (Leontjeva, 2016, p. 3).
A variety of manifestations of lack, like a particular shortage of time, material goods, skills, or a lack of relationships, are experienced directly. Such experiences are often accompanied by discomfort, and so lack is invariably seen in a negative context. Having a negative understanding of lack, people wish not only to relieve or reduce it, but to eliminate it as a source of discomfort altogether.
Conventionally related to evil and considered as an ill-fated, once-to-be aspect, lack hides its purposefulness. Ignorant of the primordial nature of lack and its purpose, people often treat lack as a consequence of an unjust social reality, a result of wrongdoing. Lack is experienced as deprivation, poverty, evil, and injustice. Attention is directed towards the elimination of those experiences and the pressure of lack altogether.
Lack is always covered by time and thus creates uncertainty and insecurity. Nature and human life are open to transformation in time. A pattern of change is inscribed everywhere: processes take place in due time, which means that at every moment an entity lacks its future form. Lack in nature is a gap between the present and the future. In human reality, insecurity, and uncertainty about the future are troublesome. “Insecurity turns lack into an enemy of the human race because it seems to be the only impediment to attaining sufficient provision and being safe” (Leontjeva, 2016, p. 9).
Constant waiting makes lack even more difficult to bear. People hurry to satisfy their desires, shorten their waiting time, and distance themselves from scarcities. A person does not know when one scarcity vanishes and another unfolds, and how to cope with it. Naturally, people long for the security that abundance can provide, so they pursue a purposeful action in response to scarcity.
Knowledge of Lack is Therapeutic and Empowering
The acceptance of scarcity as an immanent principle does not guarantee security, but it helps to understand that ever-changing lacking is no impediment to happiness. Lack can be defined by the formula “it may be, but it is not there yet” or “it must be, but it is not there yet”.
By understanding that lack is intrinsically linked to freedom of choice, our liberty, we reach an illuminating insight that liberty is not simply a matter of liking or mind-set. Liberty is immanent to, and inseparable from, the structure of being.
Yet, freedom of choice may also bring injustice, strife, and impoverishment. This also means lack, but lack as an evil, man-made phenomenon. The distinction between this secondary lack and lack as a primary cause is essential. Without this distinction, people tend to see all lack as evil, and this explains why man-made lack obscures the understanding of lack as a primordial principle.
Understanding that lack is a purposeful element of life, and not only an outcome of imperfect human action, or of greedy deeds of entrepreneurs is refreshing. It opens new avenues for the advancement of moral theory and practice. Moral norms, religion, and reason help us deal with scarcities in the flow of time, to develop self-control and moderation, and make proper and timely decisions. Perceiving lack as a fundamental element of existence, helps reveal economic reason and action as humanity’s endogenous response to scarcity, which is one of the reflections of lack.
Linear time compels people to assume responsibility for future consequences. Human action – our every choice – has consequences for ourselves, other people, and the world. A new perspective unfolds for the appraisal of the laws that govern human action.
Scarcity of time and other resources forces us to economize, use goods as efficiently as possible and save, as well as find ways to multiply them. Menger’s definition of economization can be rephrased: Economization is about saving (preserving a unit), retaining the useful features of products, deciding which need is to be met and which is not, and then effectively using goods (Šilėnas and Žukauskas 2016).
We come to understand that it is ignorance of the principle of lack that lies at the heart of social utopias and ever-growing calls for interventions. “If we accept that fundamental lack, ontic or original sin, is a constant in human beings, then any theory speaking about the complete elimination of lack in human society and all our environment is a utopia. In other words, people cannot create themselves or their surrounding environment in which this feature would not exist” (Kėvalas 2016: 67). When governments step in on our behalf to fight the various manifestations of lack, we are alienated from the very foundations of life. Our relationship with the world, and with each other, deforms. “Abolishing lack is equivalent to putting an end to life and change, to the existence of matter and body.” (Leontjeva 2016: 86).
The way in which a society perceives lack determines the path it takes: when lack is seen as a catalyst, people respond with free and creative efforts; when it is regarded as an obstacle, it becomes a pretext for coercion and redistribution. Due to the primordial nature of lack it is impossible to abolish it. Any such attempts are a meaningless waste of energy and a fallacy of modern society.
This novel paradigm of the universal principle of lack can serve as a litmus test for political fallacies, for utopias old and new. It may offer an intellectual tool to safeguard liberty and human character, at a time when humanity is obsessed as never before with the illusion that insufficiency and imperfection can be eliminated.
This essay is based on pioneering peer-reviewed multidisciplinary research on the phenomenon of scarcity (or lack). Sublime Thirst is a documentary that explores the research and this essay more in depth through interviews with research participants from diverse disciplines such as physics, philosophy, anthropology, theology, psychology, and economics. You can watch the documentary here.