Monday, August 09, 2004

Solum Ac Procerus Quidam Vicinus Est Breve

What drives people in this modern age? Do we strive to better ourselves, reaching for some Platonic ideal? Are we simply trying to accumulate the material resources we need to live in the manner we would wish?

Alain de Botton says no. In his wonderfully accessible and yet thought-provoking work Status Anxiety, he (unknowingly) agrees with David Brook's comments in "One Nation, Slightly Divisible" (Atlantic Monthly, 12/2001) that people are satisfied or unsatisfied with their lots in life based almost entirely on the circumstance of the people they grew up with, and the people around them. Should the people they see as peers be on their level (or perhaps just a bit below) and accept them as being worthwhile and successful, no shortfall in resources, no general inequity in the wealth distribution of their larger society will shake their self-esteem.

Conversely, should one's childhood friends or neighbors manage to outstrip one's own achievements, feelings of inadequacy and bitterness result. De Botton makes the controversial claim that in this regard, citizens of societies that have hard class stratification actually have a greater personal peace of mind. (Yes, even the poor ones) To be able to say that one has all one could, given the injustice of the system, the will of God or natural order of things, allows one to separate one's own worth from one's economic and sociopolitical standing. If everyone is equal, those who do not achieve pinnacles of accomplishment are failures. There are no excuses for underperformance if there are not barriers to success.

This criticism of meritocracy may be counter-intuitive but nonetheless rings true. A meritocracy is different than an egalitarian society in that the former allows for a hierarchy (even aristocracy) based on performance, whereas the latter posits normative equality even if it does not impose economic equality. While the social opprobrium that failure brings in a meritocracy is a powerful incentive to strive for success, the vast majority of the population must inherently "lose". In the name of economic growth the vast majority of the population must battle feelings of utter worthlessness without the comfort of plausible deniability.



At 10:55 AM, [REDACTED] said...

I have to admit that it does sound like an interesting piece. To an extent, I suppose that we are all relativists to some extent and compare ourselves to those around us, those we see as our peers. This is probably especially true in the United States where a "keeping up with Jones'" mentality has long been the battlecry of millions who need more to show their worth. This could be a sign of American feelings of inadequacy or it could be that American culture is a consumer culture where a lot of value (and consequent self-worth) is placed on what you have. Along those lines I suppose that it is also fair to say that if there is true equality then there are no real excuses for not "keeping up" with your peers.

Here's where I take issue with the article though. Even if no system is as rigid as a class based system there are always inherent differences between people and consequently no one is truly equal. Admittedly, being held down within a class system provides a much better excuse but you still have a group of peers and can fail relative to them.

I would also contend that just because you have an excuse for why you're not as good as others (regardless of it's because of a hierarchical system or because you have bad genes or because you're just lazy) doesnt' necessarily give you peace of mind. Consider the fact that feudal systems used to cover most of the globe. Yet people weren't so content with their lot in life as to just accept their place and consequently we had economic and political revolutions. It seems much more likely to me that cultures which are collective in the way they are run are much more likely to have peace of mind than groups in a strict hierarchy.


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