Background

The origins of Bentoism

By Yancey Strickler

I’ve long held a belief that our notion of value was too narrow. I remember reading a piece in Harper’s Magazine more than a decade ago (which I’ve been unable to track down) about how GDP failed to classify whether money was spent in a socially positive or negative way. That idea stayed with me. How could our measurement systems be so broad and blunt?

While cofounding and leading Kickstarter, these instincts became stronger. We were clear on money’s importance: we wanted to be independent, we wanted autonomy, and this meant we needed to operate in the black. But we were also clear about how money could become problematic. How a desire to constantly grow and personally enrich oneself leads to near-term thinking and abandonment of values.

At the encouragement of a colleague at Kickstarter, I spoke about financial maximization at Web Summit, as mentioned in the book. I continued to explore the subject in every talk I gave as CEO thereafter.

In 2017 I stepped down as Kickstarter’s CEO and began thinking more about the role of financial value versus other values. What was the history of our belief in financial value? Why were we so sure that money was what mattered? What was the justification for this belief? This led me into the rabbit hole of research and reading that informs the first half of my book.

In my reading I encountered much on the history of money, the importance of money, and the evils of money. But I struggled to find explorations of the value space beyond money. I wanted to make the case that non-financial value was just as rational as financial value, we just hadn’t learned to define them properly yet. Had anyone made this case before?

And then one day I found something. While reading a fascinating book called “Age of Fracture” by Daniel Rodgers, I came across mention of a movement called communitarianism, where a more expansive set of values was embraced. In fact, one of the core game theorists at the RAND Corporation (John Nash, subject of the bio and film “A Beautiful Mind”) moved to a communitarian community in the 1970s. Intrigued, I continued to dig into communitarianism until I came across a book called Spheres of Justice by Michael Walzer.

Walzer is a Professor Emeritus of Social Science at Princeton University’s Institute for Advanced Study. He wrote Spheres of Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality in 1983. It was in this little-known book that I discovered a different notion of value.

Our problem, as Walzer sees it, is dominance. Money — and other values in the past — dominates in spheres beyond where it rightfully should. “Birth and blood, landed wealth, capital, education, divine grace, and state power have all served to dominate or enable some group to dominate others,” he observes.

As a result, we fail to reach ideal outcomes in many areas of life. The potential of our world is unjustly compromised by the domination of others. Walzer notes the seventeenth-century French polymath Blaise Pascal’s writings on tyranny in his 1670 collection Pensees:

“The nature of tyranny is to desire power over the whole world and outside its own sphere… [it’s] the desire of universal power beyond it scope.”

Pascal goes on:

“There are different companies -- the strong, the handsome, the intelligent, the devout -- and each man reigns in his own, not elsewhere. But sometimes they meet, and the strong and the handsome fight for mastery -- foolishly, for their mastery is of different kinds. They misunderstand one another, and make the mistake of each aiming at universal dominion. Nothing can win this, not even strength, for it is powerless in the kingdom of the wise.”

We are a world of man masters, not just one. Each domain has its rightful ruling values and ways of valuing.

Walzer’s proposal is to limit the impact of money or any other dominant value through something he alternately calls “complex equality” and “political egalitarianism.” The aim of this is “a society free from domination.”

Walzer’s counterintuitive insight is that just dominance within a sphere is fine. Justice should be dominant in areas relating to justice. Love should be dominant in areas of the heart. Each value has its own rightful place where it should rule. According to Walzer, even a business monopoly within a category is fine if it is not unfairly earned. These monopolies and dominant positions can be justly earned and to everyone’s benefit.

The problem is when they rule where they shouldn’t. “We should focus on the reduction of dominance, not or not primarily the breakup or constraint of monopoly,” Walzer writes. “Consider what it would mean to narrow the range within which goods are convertible to other spheres.” He continues:

“Imagine a society in which different social goods are monopolistically held — as they are in fact and always will be, barring continual state intervention — but in which no particular good is vernally convertible.

“The resistance to convertibility would be maintained, in large degree, by ordinary men and women within their own spheres of competence and control, without large-scale state action.”

This is a little opaque, but he’s asking us to consider a society where each sphere has its own rules and criteria. Just because you have a lot of money doesn’t mean you get to be beautiful. Beauty is a whole different category. You don’t get one because you have the other. And this is something people can control on their own through their values and how they hold on to them.

We each have our areas in which we excel; however, this shouldn’t give us undue rights in areas where our talents and merits do not deserve it. Walzer writes:

“Citizen X may be chosen over citizen Y for political office, then the two of them will be unequal in the sphere of politics. But they will not be unequal generally so long as X’s office gives him no advantages over Y in any other sphere — superior medical care, access to better schools for his children, entrepreneurial opportunities, and so on.”

Financial inequality wouldn’t matter as much if money not so dominant. Having a lot of money would be like having a lot of toilet paper. Good for one purpose but not for everything.

“It just doesn’t matter, from the standpoint of complex equality, that you have a yacht and I don’t, or that the sound system of her hifi set is greatly superior to his. People will focus on such matters or not: that is a question of culture, not justice. So long as yachts and hi-fi sets and rugs have only use value and individualized symbolic value, their unequal distribution does not matter.”

Walzer’s vision is a world without dominance. A world where each sphere of life was ruled by its own values, not dominated by others. Because, as Walzer writes, “We are all culture-producing creatures whose customs have meaning and any attempts to override them are tyrannical.”

The answer isn’t one idea or way flourishing, it’s all ideas and ways flourishing:

“We can imagine society being run by a hereditary king, a benevolent despot, a landed aristocracy, a capitalist executive committee, a regime of bureaucrats, or a revolutionary vanguard. The argument for democracy is that different companies of men and women will most likely be respected if all the members of all the companies share political power.”

We find this hard to accept because of the myths of Great Men that we’ve been fed. Walzer again:

“We are told stories about the war hero turned entrepreneur turned perfect orator. These stories are fictions, the conversion of money or power or academic talent into legendary fame. Even if they do exist, there aren’t enough of these people to create a ruling class. By and large the most accomplished politicians, entrepreneurs, scientists, soldiers, and lovers will be different people. So long as the goods they possess don’t bring other goods in train, we have no reason to fear their accomplishments.”

Reading Walzer opened my mind. I kept thinking about the notion of each value having a rightful domain. If this is true, how do we know what domain we’re in? How can we know the values at stake?

A year later I came across a second book that transformed my thinking: a 1993 book by philosopher Elizabeth Anderson called Value in Ethics and Economics. Anderson, a professor at the University of Michigan, hones in on and builds on Walzer’s idea of a pluralistic notion of value. She writes:

“We don’t respond to what we value merely with desire or pleasure, but with love, admiration, honor, respect, affection, and awe as well. This allows us to see how goods can be plural, how they can differ in kind or quality: they differ not only in how much we should value them, but in how we should value them… The variety of ways of caring about things is the source of pluralism in my theory of value.”

In contrast, Anderson says our money-driven way of doing things “demands that we care about things that aren’t really important, justify our actions on things we don’t really believe in. And that to do this will create material wealth. So what if it doesn’t fit your character. That’s just the price we pay… It fails to provide us with a coherent basis for self-understanding and requires disturbing divisions among different aspects of the self.”

She goes on:

“There is a great diversity of worthwhile ideals, not all of which can be combined in a single life. Different ideals may require the cultivation incompatible virtues or the pursuit of some projects that necessarily preclude the pursuit of others. Individuals with different talents, temperaments, interests, opportunities, and relations to others rationally adopt or uphold different ideals. Since ideals direct a person to specially value some worthwhile projects, persons, and things over others, they distinguish from among all goods those that are particularly important to the individual. That incompatible ideals are properly adopted by different persons explains why it doesn’t make sense for everyone to take up the same attitudes toward the same things. There are far more potentially worthy objects of valuation than could occupy any one person’s concern.”

In her embrace of a pluralistic view on value, which Anderson calls “expressive value,” she introduces a new critical step:

“Rather than focusing on which option will maximize your self-interest, this approach says the first step is to see what values are at stake before considering what the practical response should be.”

By taking this step, we can create more alignment between our values and ourselves.

“Expressive theories provide a coherent basis for self-understanding, accounting for the unity of the self, and making sense of ordinary intuitions about intrinsic value and norms of appropriate behavior and feeling,” she writes.

We make decisions based on who and where we are, and what the norms around us suggest are the right and wrong ways of acting. And this is generally a good thing. This is how communities and people are distinct and how people are able to live in a self-cohesive way. It’s this energy -- subtle and deep -- that financial maximization has overwhelmed.

Walzer’s and Anderson’s ideas kept turning over and over in my head. Then one day I was sketching on paper when I had my eureka moment: drawing a hockey stick graph, and seeing the great uncharted territory of self-interest that lay beyond. I thought about that other space I hadn’t considered before. I extended the axes of the chart and drew dotted lines to delineate four quadrants.

Next to the sketch I scribbled a description of what I’d drawn. “Beyond near term orientation,” I wrote. That’s what the chart did. It took us beyond our near term orientation.

I looked at my description: BEyond Near Term Orientation. It was an acronym for BENTO. The picture was a bento box.

My mind flashed back to the week before, when my wife showed me a book she was reading about the Japanese idea of ikigai, or life’s purpose. She highlighted a passage about how a bento box is meant to make someone just 80% full. She thought it might be useful for me.

It was. A week later, staring at the chart, these ideas all came together: Bentoism.

Reading list

  • Michael Walzer, Spheres of Justice
  • Elizabeth Anderson, Value in Ethics and Economics
  • EF Schumacher, Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered
  • Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
  • Donella Meadows, Limits to Growth
  • Mariana Mazucatto, The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs. Private Sector Myths
  • Mariana Mazucatto, The Value of Everything: Making and Taking in the Global Economy
  • Konosuke Matsushita, Not for Bread Alone
  • John Higgs, The KLF: Chaos, Magic, and the Band Who Burned a Million Pounds
  • The films of Adam Curtis, especially The Trap, The Century of the Self, and Hypernormalisation
  • Bentoism was introduced in This Could Be Our Future: A Manifesto for a More Generous World by Yancey Strickler