July 2, 2009
One of the prominent images of Hinduism is Nataraja, Shiva as Lord of the Dance, creating and destroying as he moves. This is a profound metaphor for the way the world works, because everything, no matter how stable it appears, is involved in processes of creation and destruction.
One of the more interesting things you learn in quantum field theory is that at the subatomic level particles and antiparticles are constantly being created and destroyed. At the quantum level “empty space”—what physicists call the vacuum—is a foam of virtual particles and antiparticles flickering in and out of existence. This may seem like a scientific fairy tale, but those imaginary particles interact with the real ones and cause measurable effects. The most solid rock is ultimately an aggregate of uncounted bits of nothing in a constant dance of creation and destruction.
Moving up several orders of magnitude, all living things maintain themselves through a constant process of tearing down and rebuilding. For example, we all go through a complete set of red blood cells roughly every three months. Even our solid-seeming bones undergo a process of dissolution and reformation that never ends as long as we stay alive; the only way to stay completely the same is to die.
My point in bringing this up is to talk about what seems to be a common misconception about wealth. Several years ago someone sent in a question to the “Ask Marilyn” column in the Parade magazine saying that if a group of people keep playing poker long enough, one of them will end up with all the money, so you’ll have to redistribute it if you want to keep on playing. So, the question concluded, why doesn’t the government take money away from the rich people and give it to the poor people? She answered that that was called “communism” and it had been tried and didn’t work.
I felt frustrated by that answer. It’s correct as far as it goes, but I wish she had pointed out that the economy is really nothing like a poker game. Poker is a classic instance of what theorist call a zero-sum game: anything won by a given player is exactly matched by a loss for another player. The economy doesn’t work that way, because the amount of wealth is not fixed—some activities, like raising crops or building a car, create wealth where it didn’t previously exist, while other activities, like eating the harvested crops, or driving a new car off the lot, destroy preexisting wealth.
This is why communism and other philosophies based on wealth distribution don’t work: activities that create wealth pretty much all fall into the category we call “work”, while many of the activities that give us pleasure involve the destruction of wealth. If we’re able to obtain resources without doing anything to generate new wealth, we’ll gravitate to activities that use up what we already have.
At all scales, at the subatomic level, in the very tissues of our bodies, and in our economic activities, Shiva is dancing. When we deny this and try to stop the dance, we upset the balance between creation and destruction, invariably allowing destruction to get the upper hand.