'I spent time recently with the family of my girlfriend who are all staunch Republicans who were born Jewish in the Soviet Union and got out in the eighties and who worship Ronald Reagan. There’s no talking to them about any of the issues that we’re discussing here. Their narrative that they adhere to with just fanatical zeal is that people in a capitalist system, they get what they deserve. They earn what they deserve to earn. The money they make is a reflection of how much value they put into the system. And the fact that more and more people are struggling is symptomatic to them of a moral malaise where people are just too lazy to work. And it’s a self-reinforcing, self-congratulatory narrative, and it’s very seductive..."I was thinking about the difference in world views, and how the difference in world views comes down to a fundamental belief in how the world works. I think that the view articulated above - that capitalism is a system which distributes its rewards fairly and justly solely by dint of hard work, scrappiness and grit, is the prevailing belief system among people who call themselves political conservatives/Republicans in America today (yes, I'm aware of the pitfalls of the term, but I'll have to allow it for now).
And this plays into another tendency I've noticed. In any sort of online discussion, you can bet that the following will happen:
If you mention some situation where someone is being taken advantage of, fallen on hard times, working harder for less, getting screwed over by their employer or big business, losing their job or home, plunged into poverty and/or heavy debt, having trouble paying rent, feeding their kids, or anything whatsoever, it is as sure as night follows the day that some wag will pop up and go over that person's story with a fine-toothed comb, examining it under a microscope for any possible way that it is that person's own fault for their current circumstances or for what happened to them. In other words, that person deserved their fate because of 'X.' Substitute anything you like for the 'X' - it doesn't really matter. There is always something.
I guarantee this will be easy to find. for example, see this comment to this article.
it is interesting that the author seems to blame all of her problems on someone or something else. even things like smoking and drinking and dropping out of school.Or to this article:
and quite honestly why did she have two children she can't afford to care for?
want to avoid or get out of poverty?
the rules are the same for most of us:
stay in school
don't do drink or drugs
don't have children you can't afford
work hard, really hard
keep your nose clean
You work in a cafeteria. If you don't get paid enough, quit. Going on strike is probably not going to be fruitful when you can be replaced by a vending machine.Or this one (which actually brings in biological science):
The poor always have and always will be with us. Blame poor education, greed, laziness, single parent homes, minorities -anything you want. It still comes down to PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY!!! You are what you make of yourself. Make all the excuses you want. From birth you are owed nothing!!Or any article, really. It's actually quite easy - try it yourself!
I call this "the cult of individual failure," and it is rampant in America. They MUST find some way, somehow, that a person brought it upon themselves by their own failings. It's related, of course, to the just-world view articulated above; thus the justification for widespread under/unemployment as "mass laziness," or as KMO puts it above, a "moral malaise."
And the thing is, you can always play this game, and it always works, because there is no one on this earth who has made an optimal decision every single time one is faced with a decision. People are human. That is, you can always find something to condemn a person, any person, even if they did most things right. There is always some box they didn't check, some arbitrary barrier they didn't cross, to show that they are deserving of their plight. And as things get worse and worse, the people who aren't yet affected can sit in judgement on whomever is not as fortunate as they are to rationalize how much better, harder-working and more morally upright they are. Note that when Christ says, "he who is without sin, let him cast the first stone," what he is actually pointing out is that no one is without sin and therefore unable to cast judgement on anyone else. Conservatives do not get this message, and prefer to fling rocks with the enthusiasm of a major-league baseball pitcher. In fact, they need to do so.
This is the logical conclusion of the "Every man for himself," "Sink or swim," and "The devil take the hindmost," attitudes that are at the very core of America's black heart.
It's a lot easier to move society closer and closer to a Hunger Games-type scenario where every single problem in society is laid solely at the feet of individual actors. It's the perfect self-justifying system. So for example, if you didn't go to college, well, then you deserve to live in poverty for not hitting the books.
And if you did go to college and get into debt, well then it was your own fault for signing on the dotted line.
And if you got a degree and can't find a job, well, you didn't get a STEM-H degree to make yourself useful enough to corporate America. That is, if you can't or don't want to be an engineer or nurse, then to hell with you!
If you do have a STEM-H degree and can't find a job, you are in the wrong place geographically. Can't or don't want to to move? Well, then it's your own fault!
If you got a pay cut even while the CEO got yet another raise, it's because your "marginal productivity" wasn't high enough, and the CEO provided that much "value" to the shareholders.
If your job is shipped to China or India and you have to train your replacement, well, "no one owes you a job" (despite the fact that you need one in order to survive).
If you had kids before graduate school, then they deserve to starve.
You quit a job you couldn't stand? You deserve to live in your car!
If you don't have money, clearly you are enjoying luxuries of which you are undeserving, like a cell phone or Internet access. Which is ironic since, "even the poor have cell phones" is a major justification for economic inequality. I guess you can have it both ways.
And so on and so forth.
Americans love this, because it justifies the ideology noted above - the just-world fallacy of "you get what you deserve." This is their core belief, the foundation of their faith, and they will do anything---and I do mean anything---to maintain that belief. It is unshakable, and no amount of evidence will convince them otherwise. In all times and in all places, the cream rises to the top, and the scum sinks to the bottom, just as it should be. Success and comfort are only for the people who meet an arbitrary standard of virtue set by the winners.
Now it is obviously true that a person's individual actions affect their outcomes in life. To claim otherwise would be preposterous. A person who goes through school and becomes a brain surgeon is obviously going to make more money than a landscaper. Someone who becomes addicted to drugs is going to have a rough time of it (although even addictions are most likely genetic in origin, but whatever...). If you are motivated just to make money and don't give a rat's ass if you like what you do, you will probably have more security than someone who wants to enjoy their work. You make decisions every moment of every day, and the sum total or these decisions affect where you wind up in life.
It is clear that in this world, what you do does affect your outcome. This is clear. Only an idiot, or someone delusional, would deny this. To some extent you do make your own fate.
But to claim that nobody has inherent advantages or disadvantages is equally preposterous. To claim that one's parents, luck, genetics, nor anything else play a role is ludicrous. To claim that the wider society in which one lives has no effect is ludicrous. And to use this to deny the clear falling living standards and rigging of the game is also delusional.
Yet conservatives persist in these beliefs no mater what. Such are the blinders of ideology. It ties into their tendency to see everything a black or white.
When you lay all the problems of society at the feet of individual actors, it allows you to write off literally anything, no matter how bad things are or how much worse they are getting. That way, the people at the top can justify doing anything they like to the rest of us without complaint. It's like saying "You alone are responsible for getting a chair in musical chairs, and if you are left standing it's your own fault." Technically this is correct, but it ignores the salient fact of chairs being removed.
What prompted this was a post I put on Reddit of this article: The Asshole Factory. The author mentions that his friend, who has two graduate degrees, has to work in an environment where they are constantly monitored and hectored to sell more. The author extrapolates this to the wider society and claims that is making society more harsh and brutal even for those who are not poor.
It’s bananas. The whole scene is like a maximum-security mental asylum designed by sadomasochists in a sci-fi movie. If Jeffrey Dahmer, Rasputin, and Michael Bay designed a “store” together, they couldn’t do any better. Her “job” will begin to drive her crazy—paranoid, depressed, deluded—in a matter of years if she continues doing it. No human psyche can bear that kind of relentless, systematic abuse.After I posted this, here is one response someone posted:
Now. Note what all the technology and bureaucracy that wonderful, noble company has invested hundreds of millions in doesn’t ask her to do. Learn. Think. Reflect. Teach. Inspire. Lead. Connect. Imagine. Create. Grow. Dream. Actually…serve customers. Heaven forbid. It just beats her over the head, over and over again, three times a minute, every twenty seconds, with how much she hasn’t sold; hasn’t made; hasn’t produced. For her shitty .0003% commission. According to the quota that’s been set for her. By her boss. For his boss. For their boss. And so on all the way up the food chain.
See my point? Mara’s job isn’t to benefit customers. It isn’t to educate, understand, listen to, or even to chat with them. It isn’t to stop them from buying what they don’t want; to help them find what they might need; to match them with the right stuff. Nope. It’s merely to push more and more and more and more shit at them…faster, meaner, and dumber than any sane person would think is humanly possible…using advanced military technology and techniques… programmed to abuse her…so she can wage advanced psychological warfare…on her customers. And they were just suckers, gaping maws, fools, marks. And be yelled at…by a robot…if she doesn’t.
Really? This is the best our economy can do? To take the stuff of 21st century warfare and use them them to…rack up the profit? To turn a bright young woman with two grad degrees…into a Superprofitable Human Weapon of Mass Consumption…a half-crazed algorithmically-programmed asshole…a human drone…so even bigger, actually crazy assholes…can get super-rich…by slinging entire supertankers full of junk…at people getting poorer at four thousand percent interest a year…by using drones and bots to wage psy-warfare against them…so they’re conned into buying too much?
The economy doesn’t make stuff anymore. That much you know. So what does it make? It makes assholes.
"Two degrees doesn't mean she learned anything which creates value in the market."
This is what I mean by this kind of thinking. Someone responded, "That's all you took from that? No wonder we're screwed." To which the original commenter replied:
"Mostly an embittered rambling. I think people have a personal responsibility to look around the environment they live in and come up with how they're going to survive. If you don't have enough foresight to orient yourself and work towards a satisfactory means to sustain yourself I really don't have much pity for you, especially if you have enough grey matter to get two degrees. If anything the author reminds me of the saying: "If you run into an asshole in the morning, you ran into an asshole. If you run into assholes all day, you're the asshole." Maybe he just lives somewhere the sucks or maybe he's the asshole."Out of curiosity, I looked at his poster's other comments, and sure enough, what I found was that anywhere on Reddit where someone had posted an article about how much worse things are getting, this particular commenter popped up and wrote about how that person deserved what they had coming to them. This person seemed to have an almost pathological need to seek out stories about new outrages and injustices and write about how they were someone's own fault each and every time. Every time the commenter popped up on random threads across Reddit and wrote a long essay describing how people were just bellyaching and everything was just fine. The commenter was particularly active on men's rights, anti-communism, anti-government, and pro-religion threads.
The cult of individual failure at work.
Here's another comment from that person demonstrating this:
My life is peaceful and I almost never have any conflicts. I also do pretty well for myself, but I was hyper vigilant about choosing a career path I knew would be profitable. Regardless of how you try to argue it this one example of:
[salesmen] vulnerable to burnout and a miserable shopping experience for consumers, with [salesmen] forced to "push product" on customers reluctant to buy.
does not extrapolate to wider society. Not without more rigorous and empirical data.In other words, "I did everything and right and the person under consideration didn't." Or, "Things are fine for me, so clearly they can be fine for anyone."
I call this, "I've got mine, f*ck everyone else," and it's another core tenet of conservative thought. This is also why Americans, more than anyone else, engage in a vicious, crabs in a bucket mentality: if I can't have it neither can you! If we all work together, we can all be better off an no one has to live with the poverty and uncertainty that play into the hands of the rich. Instead the attitude is, I don't have it (job security, peace-of-mind, good vacations benefits, etc.), so neither should you, rather than "why can't everyone enjoy this?" I've always thought that the crab, not the eagle, should be our national symbol.
The prime example of this is the resentment that right-wing politicians stoked against union workers to take away their benefits. Rather than ask why all workers don't enjoy the benefits of unionized workers (and which most workers of other industrialized nations take as a matter of course), the attitude is one of "I work long hours for shit pay and lousy benefits. How dare you get a better deal! Take it away, and I'll cheer it on! You must be as miserable as I am!" Of course if people had any empathy, they would realize that everyone deserves better working conditions, and that these can easily be provided. If we cooperated, of course, we could all get a better deal. But the conservative mentality precludes this. Instead it is driven by fear and resentment. Thus the crabs are all left in bottom of the bucket that corporate America has put us in. Divide and conquer, yes, but it simply would not work if Americans had any solidarity. Someone on the above thread posted this about negative solidarity: Negative Solidarity: Towards the Definition of a Concept (Unemployed Negativity)
I mean, after all, consider the breathtaking judgementalism inherent in the comments above. Consider the smugness. No matter what the person did - straight 'A's, graduate school, two degrees, etc. The conservative will find something to blame them for, some way to lay that person's problems at their own feet, regardless of the direction of society.
That's the conservative mentality.
It becomes a justification to write off all injustice, all manipulation, all poverty. This is how, no matter what outrage comes up, conservatives will always seek to justify it. It's the classic "first they came for..." mentality. I'm not a Jew, a trade unionist, a communist, a dissenter, etc. It's just a few bad situations that can be easily avoided by making the right choices. And when that bad situation becomes the whole economy, what then? Of course, by then it will be too late. Even then conservatives will seek justification. After all, even concentration camps have guards and commandants.
Thus the justification that increasing poverty can only be caused by an increase in laziness - by an inability to want to work, or a 'moral malaise" as KMO puts it. This is a rationalization.
There is a mirror-image consequence to the just-world belief system, and that explains why in the face of things getting constantly worse for almost everybody, conservatives are able to deny and actually want things to get worse!
The conservative prefers a world of scarcity where life is a harsh unremitting, Darwinian struggle because only in such a society can we distinguish the winners from the losers, and thus the more just the society! The more of a struggle it is for everyone, the harder it is to get to the top, and thus this is the society they favor. That is, the losers justify the winners. A winner take all society is the only just form of society, because otherwise the poor would get more than they deserve. For the winners working their awful jobs and 80 hour weeks, without the ability to stand atop a pile of losers they have no way of validating their choices in life. As Oscar Wilde said, “It is not enough that I win, everyone else must lose.’ This perfectly encapsulates their philosophy.
So a society where you need a PhD just to get a job, where college costs double every few years, where there are fifty applicants for every job opening, where most jobs pay minimum wage, where housing costs eat up half your income, where you have no health insurance without a full-time job, where you have to commute fifty miles to get to work, where you work sixteen hour days just to keep your job, where you have to work four part-time jobs just to make ends meet; where people are homeless even though millions of houses sit empty, where children go to bed hungry at the same time taxes are being cut for the wealthy, these are all a good thing!
You see, a safety net is "stealing" from the winners, who got all their wealth fair-and-square, and giving it to the "losers" who were shiftless and lazy. We can see this in the recent GOP attempts to drug test welfare recipients and control what they can and can't buy with food stamps - there is no logical point to such legislation except to reinforce a set of just-world beliefs to their cult of followers making it easier to punish the poor for their "individual fault," and to castigate them for taking "handouts." (if only they were called bailouts instead...)
A society where everyone has a decent standard of living actually undermines their just world beliefs. How dare that people have a modicum of comfort without a lifetime of bitter hard work and struggle! For them, this is unfair and thus undermines the just world hypothesis, which they must maintain at all costs. This is also why they vote for politicians who promise to roll back social benefits like welfare, Social Security, Medicare, free preschool, etc. That is why they oppose things like universal health care, job-creation programs, affordable day care for working mothers, free higher education, and certainly things like the Basic Income Guarantee. For them, this is rewarding the losers and thus undermining the justice of society. It is giving help to the undeserving (determined by them), and thus unjust. In order to maintain the just world illusion, the poor must be made to suffer for their sins!
From the standpoint of a just-worlder, the worse things get, the more just society is!
In a society where everyone has a decent standard of living, this is not the case. Even if we can “afford” to give everyone a decent standard of living – food, clothing, shelter, education, etc. we must not do so. If you get what you deserve, then surely some must deserve utter destitution as surely as the rich deserve their opulence.
Of course in less harsh societies, there is less social strife, everyone is happier and more productive, including the rich, and there is even evidence that the overall economy is better off. In a country where the price of failure is not utter destitution, people are more willing to take risks (which is why we created bankruptcy and got rid of debtor's prisons). More people can participate in society in a meaningful way, leading to better social outcomes, and an actual stronger economy for all where vast amounts of people aren't excluded from participating in a meaningful way. Artistic output is better which enhances quality of life. People are free to develop their human capital. You spend less money on policing and keeping people in line. Even the rich are happier since they no longer need to constantly work as hard to stay on top, and do not need to fear what will happen if they do not.
But the conservatives do not see it this way. All that matters is the harsh moral lens through which they make sense of the world.
Naturally, the winners are allowed in such a system to see themselves as “deserving” no matter how many advantages they started out with. Thus we had the phenomenon of Mitt Romney declaring how he “worked hard” and “pulled himself up by his bootstraps” to become the founder the asset-stripping private equity firm
Finally, I should mention a related concept that I call "Horatio Alger yardstick."
This is especially popular in America. The media constantly scours the entire world for any story of someone overcoming impossible odds to get rich. And in a world of billions of people it is guaranteed that they will find some examples, no matter how rare or atypical.
For example, have you ever read the story about the homeless, orphaned teen who graduated with a Master's degree from Harvard? Of the guy who lived in his car and dumpster-dived while he was building his start-up which he sold for a billion dollars? Or the billionaire banker who was born to working-class parents? No matter the rarity of the case, such stories will be sought out and repeated ad infintum across the broad spectrum of the American media. I remember reading about such stories. The latest one de jour is about the janitor who retired with millions of dollars thanks to the stock market:
The Remarkable Life and Investing Lessons of Ronald Read (The Big Picture)
From the emphasis on such stories, you would thing they are not only typical but more important that the actual news! Somehow the "rigorous empirical data" demanded above goes out the window for such stories. It's a world where, like Lake Woebegone, everyone can be above average, and if you aren't it's your own fault (and not that of math).
The implication is clear: this person succeeded despite 'X' , why can't you? And once again, substitute anything you like for the 'X'. That is, you have no excuse! It's the flip-side to the cult of individual failure. No matter what roadblocks you have, there is someone, somewhere, who over came them. If you can't meet this standard, it is solely your own fault, and thus you deserve your fate.
Now, good for these people. Again, nothing against them, but is it fair that we must all be judged against such standards? Is it fair that these people are used justify the immiseration of everybody else? That they justify the increasing struggle just to get a job or make ends meet? That it is used to justify the winner-take-all society and dismantling of the commons?
Yes it is, if you're a conservative.
"The cult of individual failure," "I've got mine, f*ck everybody else," and "Horatio Alger yardstick" are three mental habits of conservatives that ensure that no matter how bad things get for most of us, nothing will be done. These habits of thinking are the core beliefs of most of our population here in America, particularly in a low-empathy "hustling" society like the United States.
In fact, these articles make the same points:
In the 1960s, a social psychologist named Melvin Lerner noticed something troubling about his colleagues. The therapists at his hospital—generally such nice, sympathetic people—seemed to be acting heartlessly towards some of their mentally ill patients, pushing and prodding them during sessions, describing the vulnerable and disturbed as shiftless manipulators. Why were these professionals, generally so kind and compassionate, treating patients as if they somehow deserved their illness?The Monstrous Cruelty of a Just World (Hazlitt)
Lerner began conducting a series of unusual experiments to find out. On the campus of the University of Kansas, he had subjects observe a woman undergo a series of tests. When the woman (ostensibly a fellow test subject but actually a grad student playing a role) got a question wrong, she was given a jolt of electricity. As the subjects looked on, the jolts became more severe. She writhed in pain. It gradually became clear: they were witnessing a woman being brutally tortured.
The subjects were understandably distressed. When given the option of changing the experiment, the vast majority chose to end the electric shocks. When they weren’t given that option, however, Lerner witnessed a disturbing reaction. As the participants continued to watch, unable to alter the victim’s fate, they began to derogate the woman. Different groups were told she was being paid different amounts of money for the experiment. The lower the pay, the more the subjects disliked her. Irrationally, with no evidence to support it, the observers became convinced the woman deserved her punishment.
The results, Lerner argued, were the result of what he called “belief in a just world”—the natural tendency to see the universe as an essentially fair place. When presented with an obvious injustice, we try to resolve it: we end the cruel experiment, cure the patient, free the innocent man from jail. When we are helpless to change things, however, rather than give up our belief in the essential rightness of the universe, we begin to rationalize away the unfairness. The sight of a woman suffering without any hope of compensation was simply incompatible with a just world; in order to reconcile those two facts, observers irrationally decided she must have done something to justify her punishment.
The experiments, which Lerner expanded over the next few decades, were investigations into that fundamental human impulse enshrined in ancient religions, new-age platitudes, and countless clichés: a belief that people get what they deserve, that what goes around comes around, that chickens inevitably come home to roost.
All of which is another reminder of a truth that’s too often forgotten in our era of extreme political polarization and 24/7 internet outrage: wrong opinions – even deeply obnoxious opinions – needn’t necessarily stem from obnoxious motivations. “Victim-blaming” provides the clearest example: barely a day goes by without some commentator being accused (often rightly) of implying that somebody’s suffering was their own fault. That’s a viewpoint that should be condemned, of course: it’s unquestionably unpleasant to suggest that the victims of, say, the Charlie Hebdo killings, brought their fates upon themselves. But the just-world hypothesis shows how such opinions need not be the consequence of a deep character fault on the part of the blamer, or some tiny kernel of evil in their soul. It might simply result from a strong need to feel that the world remains orderly, and that things still make some kind of sense.
Believing that life is fair might make you a terrible person (The Guardian)
Se also these short relevant posts from Stumbling and Mumbling: Luck and The Deserving Rich
..it’s impossible to tell what any individual really deserves. Do I, for example, deserve to earn more than the average worker? In one sense, no: my work is much less onerous or unpleasant than the average. But on the other hand, this pleasant outcome could be a just reward for years of effort earlier.
I don’t know which it is - or at least, I don‘t if I slough off the self-serving bias! - so I’m blowed if I can judge anyone else’s income. For this reason, I share the Devil’s consternation at the idea that public opinion should adjudicate.
Secondly, it’s possible that none of us deserve anything. This isn’t just the traditional Christian position that we are all miserable sinners. It’s also the Rawlsian one, that the distribution of talents - which include an appetite for hard work - is “arbitrary from a moral point of view.” And of course, none of us “deserves” the enormous good fortune of having been born into a liberal democracy in the late 20th century.
For me, these reasons suffice to disregard “desert” as a macro principle colouring our views about the distribution of income - though we might use it in other contexts, as when we say “he deserved that goal” or “he deserves to go to prison for that.