Decoupling Virtue and Material Success
Andrew Sullivan has an interesting piece in The New Republic today, drawing some lessons from a flap Prince Charles got himself into for speaking the simple truth that all men are, contrary to the propaganda, not created equal.
But learning our own limits is the beginning of wisdom. Some people are simply not as intelligent as others. Some can play the piano brilliantly; others have no clue. I do not regard my own failure to play rugby for the England team as a huge injustice, although my father has yet to recover from it. The world should be glad I am not an accountant. I am not likely to become an Abercrombie and Fitch model. And if I consistently nagged and begged assorted model agencies to hire me, I would have no case. Isn’t that really what the prince was saying?
Of course, nuances matter. When the skill-difference between jobs is trivial, sometimes ability can be in the eye of the beholder. Bad management can squelch the most eager and capable of drones. But Charles is right to bemoan the notion that anyone can do anything, and that if they don’t, some injustice is somehow being perpetrated. That injustice is called life.
And this, of course, cuts to the chase of the meritocratic project. The inequalities of ability are far more crushing than the inequalities of a rigid class system. And the great mixed blessing of a democracy in which everyone has a chance at success is that inequality of results seems crueler and starker. It cannot be blamed away. We’re not there yet, of course. But you only have to read The Bell Curve (no, not its racial chapter) to see where we are headed.
An open market society with an effective educational system in an economy that increasingly values brainpower over brawn will lead inexorably to greater and greater inequality. And that inequality may be even less tolerable for those at the bottom than in days gone by. We can ameliorate this. But even if we improve the education system, the result is greater efficiency in advancing inequality. Human envy will not die. Neither will differences in human ability. And resentment will grow.
Is there any way out? The only answer, I think, is cultural and moral. We have to decouple the notion of virtue and worth from material success. I don’t think it’s an accident that we see greater emphasis on religious faith and moral values at a time when our economy is increasingly rewarding people on the brutal basis of market worth. It’s a way of correcting for inequality, by reminding people that their dignity inheres in something far more profound than their paycheck or social status.
Sullivan is right, of course. I disagree, however, with the essay’s implicit assumption that those with the highest intelligence and education are necessarily the highest paid. Stars in the sports and entertainment industries make far more money than Nobel Prize winning scientists. Successful plumbers and carpenters make more money than college professors.
Law and medicine are exceptional, in that relatively high intelligence and education levels are indeed rewarded with high salaries. In the latter case, however, that’s primarily a function of articifical scarcity. Through what amounts to collusion, the medical profession has unnecessarily limited the number of seats at medical schools to keep their services scarce. As to the former, there is certainly no shortage of attorneys in America. But the high wages they earn is mainly a function of an overregulated society that requires legal expertise at every turn–partly created by lawyer legislators and lawyer lobbyists–and a culture of incredible litigiousness. The latter is somewhat ironic in that it is what sparked Charles’ comments to begin with.