Monday, August 1, 2011

Work, Money, Fairness, And The American Way

I'm always surprised at how many people seem to believe both of these two things which seem incompatible to me.

(1)  If you work hard, you should be able to have a decent life.

(2)  When it comes to economic exchanges, people should generally be left alone to do their thing without outside interference.

(1) means something like, "If you work hard, and play by the rules, you should be able to live reasonably well."  In America in 2011, "reasonably well" seems to mean something like being able to have a house, a TV, and a decent car, and to be able to educate your kids. 

I take it that in (1) the "should" is generally not the predictive "should" -- like, "the bank should be open when you get there," but is rather the normative should.  As in, if it doesn't happen, something about that is not right, or not fair.  Not many people would put it this way, maybe, but the idea seems to be a kind of basic social justice or extended social contract.  Like, play by the rules, do your thing, and you won't be screwed.

But then there's (2).  I assume (2) means that if a person or corporation wants to engage in some economic transaction, they should be free to do so on whatever terms they choose and should be free from external interference.  Most people may not draw out the implications of this fully, but I take it (2) means getting rid of regulations and the institutions that set them up, as much as possible. 

It seems to me evident that these are incompatible.  In the absence of a role for some interfering institution or other body doing all those things, in what sense could there possibly be a "should" involved in how successful you are? 

There are a million reasons you might work hard and not benefit very well economically.  What you have might not interest anyone.  What you are able to do might not be the kind of thing anyone wants to pay you to do.  You might have been born with few abilities or talents, or low intelligence, and thus not be able to do anything that is considered valuable by others.  You might have chosen poorly when you got education or training, working for years, say, to become a typewriter repair person at the dawn of the internet. 

If people get to make their own unfettered decisions, to suit themselves, about all economic transactions, then it will certainly would be, in part, a matter of luck and circumstance whether you are able to earn enough to live a decent life.  Indeed, if you happen to live in a time or place of limited resources, it might be a matter of luck or circumstances whether you even have enough to live at all. 

If you're disabled, it could easily happen that, work as hard as you might, you would be unable to earn the -- actually quite substantive -- kind of money that one needs for American housing, cars, gadgets and TVs.  For that matter, you might just be someone people hate.  People hate for all kind of famously irrational reasons:  racism, sexism, homophobia, the list is endless.  If you're hated, you aren't going to be on the receiving end of a lot of opportunities. 

Now some people who are committed to (2) seem to me to acknowledge this incompatibility and accept that  (1) doesn't follow.  Circumstances don't care about justice, and it won't be "unfair" if the way they work out sucks for you.  It will just be, well, Sucks To Be You.  

But a surprising number of people seem to believe both (1) and (2).  I don't know what kind of "should" or "fair" these people are referring to.  The correlation between hard work and a decent life only comes about by either luck or by some interference making the correlation happen.

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