August 14, 2012

The Myth of the Self-Made Man, or the False Tyranny of Circumstance

[In continuation of our discussion of VP choices, finance, the economy and job creation, the social safety net, and the larger mission of government.] 

If you listen to the noise coming out of the presidential campaigns - or more precisely the "unaffiliated" shills peopling super-PACs and cable news editorial staffs -  long enough, you might be fooled into believing one of two things (or both?) that aren't true about our country.

One side wants you to believe that we live in a perfect meritocracy where, through hard work and pluck alone, simply anyone can bootstrap himself (or herself) out of the middle class and take a seat at the Great Table of Unlimited Wealth.  Right next to Donald Trump and his merry band of alpha-males.  These folks seem to quake in constant fear that mean old socialists will storm jackbooted into their penthouses and force them back down into the grey, feckless mass of the middle class, forever forced to take public handouts that rob them of their self-esteem and pride.  Or, you know, actually make them pay taxes or something.

The other side wants you to believe that plutocrats have successfully perpetrated a silent coup d'eta of our government to cement a neo-feudal class structure where no man (or woman) is capable freeing himself (or herself) from the shackles of the circumstance of his (or her) birth.  These folks seem to see Dickensian villains - ever poised to send each of us to debtor's prison, or the poor house, or the orphanage - pulling the puppet strings of industry and government to guarantee that individual effort is funneled solely into corporate profits.  Or, whatever it was that Noam Chomsky and George Orwell were really afraid of.

Neither of those narratives is remotely true.  As with just about anything you can think of, the truth is more nuanced and complicated than an overly-reductive campfire tale.  As citizens of the United States of America, we fortunately live somewhere near the exact midpoint between these two dystopian hellscapes.  The issue that necessarily gets lost in the FUD, is how close we are to that midpoint.  (For more on this subject go read this excellent article in The Economist, which is similar to this old DI post.)  That is something I will call the Societal Cohesion Equilibrium Point (SCEP).

Without getting too esoteric on you, dear reader, we can think of the SCEP as the point where regulation, liberty, and socioeconomic mobility are tuned just right to create the perfectly level playing field for everyone.  Success would then be a function of ingenuity and hard work, while circumstance could unfairly hinder no one.  People are not advantaged nor disadvantaged based on demography.  Yes, this is what you might call a total f&#king fairy tale.  There aren't enough social scientists in the universe nor precise econometrics to even design a thought experiment to find SCEP.  But, I think we all could agree that it is out there, and it's pursuit is the real job of government.

Back to reality.  The dynamic systems that make up a society of 300-odd million people (let alone the interaction of micro and macrocultures on a global scale) are so chaotic and complex that luck and randomness and circumstance will always play a role in success and failure.  Conversely, despite that infallible truth, hard work and personal responsibility are essential virtues to stack the deck in one's favor.  Those, therefore, that sit on a mountain of wealth and conclude they are uniquely touched by the gods are just as misguided as those that blame their station in life on the hands of an unfair society.

So, when it comes to objectively deciding whom to vote for this Fall, try to ask yourself which guy's aim is to get us closer to the SCEP.  Try to listen to the arguments and read between the lines, because a certain vice-presidential nominee's budget proposal is more about tearing down current institutions and replacing them with some Ayn Rand inspired libertarian pipe dream.  The other guys are more interested in making those institutions bettter.  Just remember this is not a fight between neo-feudalism and.arch-socialism.

We will never achieve a truly level playing field, but if we all close our eyes and believe hard enough...

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