I was considering the state of the world, both happier and less-than-happier changes. On the less-than-happier side, one piece of data has had me scratching my head for years.
The wealthier are worse off in higher inequality societies than in lower inequality societies, at least in terms of comparable societies where other factors are more similar, specifically when comparing European countries. When great disparities dominate, the wealthy have higher rates of health problems, homicide, etc. It’s not just about the rich saying, screw the poor! So, what is going on? Why does inequality grow when it is causing so much harm, even to those with the power and self-interest to do something about it?
I’ve sometimes wondered that the self-appointed elite aren’t as smart as they think they are, that they fall prey to cognitive biases just like the rest of us and in some ways to a worse degree. For example, the wealthy tend to be more well educated and higher IQ, while also being more prone to the smart idiot effect—overestimating what they know and not recognizing what they don’t know, which is to say they are so used to being treated as experts (by other wealthy people) that they forget that whatever expertise they may genuinely have tends to be extremely narrow and limited… or, to put it simply, they lack humility and self-awareness, not to mention other-awareness.
That would relate to a study I’ve mentioned before. Supposedly, people in the lower classes are better than those in the upper classes at accurately reading the body behavior and facial expressions of others and using that to perceive the subjective experience of those others. Those who are without power are forced to pay close and careful attention to the world around them to ensure survival, especially in terms of understanding those who hold power over them. Because of this, if you want to know the inner truth of a society, talk to the servants, maids, janitors, nannies, etc for they are the people who see what no one else sees.
From this perspective, those who act destructively may not be doing so on purpose. They know not what they do. That is my normal line of thought. But a different connection popped into my mind. What if on some level they know exactly what they do?
There is yet another study that points to a more general pattern in human nature. The study was set up to allow a choice between socially positive behavior and selfish behavior. It also gave the opportunity to choose how to respond. The researchers found that many people were willing to knowingly sacrifice their own good in order to punish someone who they perceived as having acted wrongly and without proper respect and concern for others. It was as if some people felt certain social norms had been betrayed and that defending them was worth the cost.
It is easy to see how this could be a positive force at times. Our entire legal system, when it works well, is supposed to put bad people away. If there are no consequences to socially harmful behavior, then social trust is undermined and social capital declines. Bad would lead to worse. But it is obviously comes at high cost to punish and imprison people. In this sense, something is being created, a hopefully good society.
Not punishing the guilty would be a moral hazard. We see this where corruption and cronyism dominates. It makes it harder for others to act in socially beneficial ways, because instead of punishing bad behavior it is rewarded. In such a world, an honest person won’t be able to compete with the dishonest and so will find themselves on the short end of the stick, the honest politician not getting elected and the honest businessman going out of business.
The world we have has been made to be the way it is. Social Darwinian meritocracy isn’t just rhetoric for those who genuinely believe in it. I’d argue that most people in power (and those who benefit from their power) do hold the conviction that they deserve their wealth and position (not just the ruling elite but also the middle class and aspiring middle class). From this perspective, they see everyone else as undeserving.
I’ve had arguments with people that go along a strange path. Those who disagree with social programs that help others don’t always do so because they believe they are ineffective. Such people will sometimes admit or consent to the possibility that the targeted populations will actually be helped and their lives improved. But they still think it shouldn’t be done. Those other people deserve their problems and don’t deserve anything to be taken away from the more deserving. All the wealth, power, opportunities, etc are controlled by certain people for a reason. It would be unfair to even out the playing field, to allow the inferior to challenge and possibly harm the social order that is already working so well for the deserving.
It’s not just that these people lack imagination. Sure, the world maybe could be made better for everyone. But then that would eliminate what makes this society so great and superior. In many ways, it comes at an extreme cost to maintain a Social Darwinian meritocracy—police state and mass incarceration for social control and just enough welfare to keep the masses from revolting. It would be cheaper to have a less oppressive and more egalitarian society, but those in power are willing to pay the costs to have it this way, even when the costs personally harm them, just as long as it harms the undeserving even more.
Having a massive permanent underclass isn’t just about keeping people down in a simple sense. Those in power love to lavish praise and resources upon the few people who escape that hell, for the few that escape prove that they are deserving and so prove the system is working. That many deserving people don’t escape is fine, because the perception of moral worth in this society isn’t based on the good of all. The only thing that is required is that some people sometimes are able to move upwards. If that social and economic mobility were easy and more evenly expressed, then to the winners it would seem to be of less value and worthiness. Struggle and suffering is part of the design.
Within this worldview, all the social costs are necessary for the social good. It just so happens that most of the social costs fall on those already disadvantaged, but it even comes with costs to those at the top. A surprising number of people apparently find these costs worth paying, as an investment toward the status quo. The costs aren’t a loss or waste. Anytime a politician tells you that government is inevitably a failure, that government is the problem and not the solution, they are lying and they know they are lying. The system is working just fine, even if the purpose and the beneficiaries are being hidden from public view.