Updated: Jan 23, 2021
A Metaeconomics guide to moving beyond the Tyranny of Merit and the Culture of Cruelty, toward respecting the different kinds of smart, and that everyone contributes: Contributive Justice is essential to a viable capitalism&democracy.
A lot has been written in the last few years about why we seem to be moving to authoritarian styled governments and authoritarian (generally with oligarchy) styled economies in so many parts of what used to be solidly democracy and capitalism based systems. Another way to frame it: Why are so many people in what used to be solid democracies favoring the “strongman (generally men, but not always)” politicians who favor authoritarian --- often with a fascist twist --- government and a kind of authoritarian capitalism on the extreme right of the political economic spectrum? In fact, authoritarianism is also a feature of the extreme left, too, where a kind of authoritarian capitalism is being tried even in countries that had historically been more toward the communism (without any kind of authoritarian in charge for the idealized version of it) end of the spectrum. Just like a pure capitalism has no authoritarian in charge, it is also true of a pure communism: So, why are authoritarians being nourished and encouraged at points toward the extremes? Why are otherwise reasonable people on both the left and the right supporting authoritarians (especially the fascists in politics and religion) in both government and the economy?
Authoritarianism by itself arises within a certain personality type, one oriented to being a critical parent, generally someone raised by a critical parent, a disciplinarian who in addition cannot handle racial, gender, and moral diversity (Stenner, 2005). So, the authoritarian personality arises, emerges when diversity increases. And, it has been well-documented that such political leaders are now found in many places on the Spaceship including here in the US (Applebaum, 2020; Dean and Altemeyer, 2020). The fascinating question is why such leaders have gained any favor.
The question is especially fascinating when one realizes that human experience on this Spaceship demonstrates that authoritarianism at either extreme has never worked, just as extreme public property only pure communism and extreme private property only pure capitalism have also never worked. A mixed system with good balance in private&public-property, market&government, especially the well-balanced capitalism&democracy versions, without authoritarianism, have worked. The best balance that actually works has always involved something akin to the humane liberalism of capitalism&democracy envisioned by the Enlightenment thinkers like Adam Smith.
Things Were Better Balanced in the Mid-1950s and Mid-1970s
As documented in Putnam and Garrett (2020), such a system was close to being attained in the mid-1950s and again in the mid-1970s in the US, near the top of The Upswing (see https://www.metaeconomics.info/post/now-that-the-election-is-over), it did not settle in, and now we are back to toying with authoritarianism. So, while it is well understood both in actual human experience and in political economic science that we need to stay away from the pure forms at the extremes, especially the authoritarian versions of them, why are we moving away from humane liberalism based systems, the only system that holds promise to really work?
Fukuyama (2006) proclaimed the entire Spaceship was going to have that kind of system, and we no longer needed to explore the reasons why: The End of History, he proclaimed. Humane liberalism won. We Spaceship travelers all, we humans, had decided that a humane liberalism based capitalism&democracy was the best system. The Berlin wall had come down, and we saw how that brand of authoritarian communism did not work. China was experimenting with capitalism, and it was thought inevitable that democracy would win. Humane liberalism was winning, and it would eventually win out over all other systems that humans had considered and tried.
And, now, just a few short years later, authoritarianism is back in play with a vengeance. Even in the US which historically was absolutely against such framing, always against communism of any form, authoritarian or otherwise, on the extreme left, and even fighting World War II against authoritarian fascism on the extreme right, is now dabbling with it, as is the UK. It seems ever more people in the US are embracing a version of autocracy, and supporting authoritarian leaders in both politics and religion having a twist of fascism, and displaying anti-democracy tendencies, especially on the Extreme Right. US leaders with said tendency appear to be finding the authoritarians as represented in leaders of Russia and China as having merit? What is going on?
Focus Here on the Extreme Right
Well, I am going to leave out the discussion of the drivers on the Extreme Left, in that my concern here is US capitalism&democracy which has shifted so far to the Right on the political economic spectrum that the Left does not even exist anymore, at least not in any extreme left sense. Rather, the Right disparagingly pointing to Socialism on the Left in the US is like pointing to the platform of the US Republican Party in the mid-1950s. In fact, the far more serious issue in the US at this time is the shift to Authoritarianism on the Extreme Right, including the gentler, more tolerable --- which is not saying much --- version of it represented in Scroogism. The Evil Genius (after Andersen, 2020) of the Extreme Right has tipped the balance so far to the Scroogist Right (with a twist of Authoritarian Fascism in the background of it) that the Socialist Left --- which at least since the 1930s was about a helping hand, and doing the things that government is good at doing and the market, not so much --- to the extent there ever was such a thing in the US, is ever more a memory of the past.
So, back to the question: What is going on? Why are we voting for and otherwise encouraging authoritarian politicians (and religious leaders, too) on the Extreme Right that have a fascist twist, and, in gentler terms, why are we encouraging the Scroogists? Why are fascist politics and fascist religion a growing force in the US, which even darkens Scroogism, which is bad enough on its own?
It is a Matter of the Dignity of Work, and, Being Able to Earn Enough for Decent Living
Drawing on Sandel (2020), the one word is dignity. In two words, dignified work. And, being Sandel (2020) is a philosopher, the problem in more technical terms is the lack of enough attention to Contributive Justice, with problems therein compounded with a lack of Distributive Justice. Contributive Justice points to the essential need, as Metaeconomics also makes clear, for the worker to be part of something bigger than the “I” and thus to be part of a “We” of some kind: The deterioration of a meaningful set of “We” connections has isolated the “I” for virtually everyone. So, Fascist groups, whether in politics and/or religion, and it is especially bad when they are both, become attractive to some of the “I” mindsets who are looking for a “We” to given them meaning. Fascism does exactly that, narrowing and defining the insider group which the isolated “I” can join, and, in some sense, now feel whole again, as in “I&We.” In Metaeconomic terms, we have a failure in such narrowing in shared interests. The failure is in the need in the US to form a viable, shared other-interest(s) that is actually a good and ethical shared interest, widely shared by everyone (see Lynne, 2020). Fascism supported by Authortarianism is not it.
What is driving this narrowing of shared other-interest, on which an authoritarian politician shored up by authoritarian religious leaders thrive? One driver has been the lack of Distributive Justice. A substantive number, upwards of 80-90 percent of the workforce, have been left behind as the income and wealth has been concentrated in the top 10-20 percent, and especially in the top 1 percent. A few “I” have managed to take and keep most of the income and wealth, while those who helped make that wealth have not received a reasonable share of it, as in Distributive Justice. And, that concentration of income and wealth, has also concentrated the political power. The lack of both Contributive and Distributive Justice has led to resentment, hopelessness, and all manner of social and public health problems (see Payne, 2018), even massive increases in “deaths of despair (Sandel, 2020, p. 200)."
Contributive Injustice is the Main Problem
As Sandel (2020, p. 18 ) makes clear, Contributive Justice may be the main driver, as the lack of it is probably the main cause for supporting the strongman politicians who promise to address their concerns, and, that the “…grievances are not only economic but also moral and cultural; they are not only about wages and jobs but also about social esteem.” In Metaeconomic terms, it is not only about self-interest (economic), but even more importantly is about that which is shared in the other-interest (moral, cultural, social esteem). And, he adds (Sandel, 2020, p. 19), construing the move to strongman support, the populist protest
… as either malevolent or misdirected absolves governing elites of responsibility for creating the conditions that have eroded the dignity of work and left many feeling disrespected and disempowered. The diminished economic and cultural status of working people in recent decades is not the result of inexorable forces; it is the result of the way mainstream political parties and elites have governed.
So, it is about the elites --- more highly educated or higher income and more wealthy, and especially when they are both wealthy&educated --- looking down on the less educated, lower income and wealth people that is causing the political economic chaos, and giving rise to the appeal to authoritarians with a fascist twist, who astutely, like carnival hawkers and conmen, promise to fix it. Such political and religious leaders are filling the gap left by the failure of humane liberalism based capitalism&democracy envisioned by the enlightenment thinkers like Adam Smith. The failed system has evolved instead to produce outcomes that few (perhaps only the 1%, and, they may not be happy, either) can go along with. Fukuyama (2006) and others who thought we were on the best path missed some key issues.
Culture of Meritocracy Leading to a Culture of Cruelty
A similar and related story is weaved in Wise (2015): The US (and several other of the main democracies, especially the UK) has come to operate with a culture that praises the rich and shames the poor. It is a culture of meritocracy for the rich and accomplished --- often including the more highly educated --- and a culture of cruelty for everyone else. As Wise (2015) characterizes it, especially if the latter are also poor, they are not only framed as less capable, but vile, and, perhaps even corrupt, as in the characterization of welfare queens used by the Right starting in the early-1980s with the Reagan (and Thatcher in the UK, with several other major democracies also chiming in at the time) Revolution. Cruelty is the next step, as those at the lower end of the economic ladder are treated badly because they are not deemed as deserving as the meritocracy at the top.
Sandel (2020) does not go that far, to the frame of vile and corrupt, but uses two other categories just as disparaging, in some ways just as cruel, as related to credentialism being a major part of the meritocracy, the tyranny of merit. Credentialism leads to two categories of smart vs dumb as associated with the accomplished (income/wealth and/or education) vs less accomplished. The resulting tyranny of merit is to claim that somehow those of the meritocracy made it strictly through being smart, and those who did not make it, the reason is because they are dumb, which is to be cruel. The fact is, some people were just more lucky, perhaps having been born at just the right time such that they were ready to take on some new endeavor at the best time (often said of those who started the computer revolution), or, perhaps inherited a great deal of money which gives an early advantage. In other words, accomplishments are not just because of being smarter. And, perhaps most importantly, people just have different kinds of smart, as every job requires a kind of smart in order to do that job.
And, the smart vs dumb framing has led to all manner of economic, cultural, and political problems. As Brooks (2020) characterizes it:
the information age has created a lot more people who make their living working with ideas.. The information economy has increasingly rewarded them with money and status. It has increasingly concentrated them in ever more prosperous metro areas. ... While these cities have been prospering, places where fewer people have college degrees have been spiraling down: flatter incomes, decimated families, dissolved communities. In 1972, people without college degrees were nearly as happy as those with college degrees. Now those without a degree are far more unhappy about their lives ...People need a secure order to feel safe. Deprived of that, people legitimately feel cynicism and distrust, alienation and anomie. This precarity has created, in nation after nation, intense populist backlashes against the highly educated folks who have migrated to the cities and accrued significant economic, cultural and political power. Will Wilkinson of the Niskanen Center calls this the “Density Divide.” It is a bitter cultural and political cold war.
In both the Payne (2018) and Sandel (2020) stories, the fundamental problem is the lack of that which provides for both the dignity of work --- feeling part of a “We” that serves the Common Good for the entire system, and being recognized for that contribution --- and sufficient pay for the contribution in making the Private Good that goes into the market, such that every person can actually make a decent living. People need to do work that is dignified, so one can go home at night feeling they are contributing to the Common Good, while also bringing home a paycheck large enough --- reflecting a reasonable share (as in Distributive Justice), the contribution, to making the Private Good --- to actually make the family and community within which the person lives into a viable unit. A person having to work 2-3 jobs to make enough money to live, and doing it in a job that is not respected by the elite, does not have time nor the inclination to build a viable and good family or community. No wonder there are dysfunctional families, and communities are crumbling. The American Dream is gone, except for a few elite at the top.
As Sandel (2020) characterizes it, we need to move to acknowledging the key role of Contributive Justice as being at least as important as Distributive Justice. The latter is about having enough income and wealth to be a viable consumer who can actually participate in consumption facilitated by the market --- having adequate amounts of money to at least buy essential food, housing, and health care. The former is about earning that money in dignified work --- being respected for the work one does, no matter the nature and the character of said work --- wherein the payoff is not only at a reasonable monetary level reflecting the actual contribution to making the Private Good, but also a sense of contributing to the Common Good of everyone. We as Spaceship travelers are all in it together, which is missed by the meritocracy, as framed in the tyranny of merit.
Contributive Justice refers specifically to “… an opportunity to win the social recognition and esteem that goes with producing what others need and value (Sandel, 2020, p. 206).” Said more directly, it is not just about the money one takes home from that job (the “I” of it) as related to producing the Private Good traded in the market, but also feeling good about working in that job (the “We” of it), as related to producing the Common Good which generally does not have a market price P but does have a value V.
Metaeconomic Technical Story: Dual Interest of Private&Common-Good
If not intrigued with the deeper details, skip this section. To understand the Sandel (2020) call for finding the Common Good in production, think about a farmer producing something like corn, a Private Good, who is also cognizant of the Common Good with downstream and offsite people, as well as parts of the non-human Spaceship system like the wildlife living in that corn field. In fact, we have 3+ decades of research (see Lynne et al., 2016, with a brief overview in Lynne, 2020, Chp. 8) that many farmers prefer to farm in such a way that offsite effects are minimal, and that onsite farming practices are also compatible with the Spaceship system within which the corn field is embedded. Many farmers do join in some empathy-with nature (e.g. wildlife living in the fields) onsite as well, as do others who are not farmers. The Common Good way to produce crops on farms --- coming from using more conservation inputs e relative to industrial inputs d --- is represented on path 0M in the figure (derived from Lynne, 2020, Figure 8.1).
Figure ST 1 represents the work of a farmer growing something like corn, the Private Good, on path 0G, the self-interest path. While growing that corn, there can be downstream, offsite effects if chemicals and fertilizers move away from the fields. Also, perhaps wildlife can also live in and around said corn fields, eating some of it, and otherwise making it their home during the corn growing season. So, the farmer can choose to be part of doing the right thing for both the wildlife and offsite users as represented in the Common Good in moving closer to path 0M, by using relatively more conservation inputs e.
The best path, in the Contributive Justice sense as outlined by Sandel (2020), is path 0Z where the farmer is not only sacrificing a bit of self-interest from path 0G to provide something for the Common Good (i.e. more wildlife, better quality water downstream). Path 0Z is a path arising from tempering the ego-based self-interest path 0G focused on producing the Private Good with empathy-based other (shared with others yet internalized to the own-self)-interest path 0M. In effect, the Common Good works to influence the Private Good, with a better outcome in good balance in Private&Common Good.
Everyone, including the farmer, is better off on the Private&Common Good path 0Z. The farmer is happier; the wider community, including the downstream water user as well as those concerned about wildlife, is more at peace, in the sense of everyone is now in it together --- producing corn, wildlife, and better downstream water quality --- the Common Good(s). The wildlife are clearly better off, as is the Spaceship system in general. So, economic efficiency is served on path 0Z.
Connecting the conservation problem directly with the Sandel (2020) Tyranny of Merit idea, and the Wise (2015) Meritocracy idea, the meritorious --- in this case, the profit maximizing farmer who believes own-self to be deserving --- are so focused on the Private (their own) Good, they are oblivious to the Common Good. So, that farmer would operate on path 0G --- perhaps even the vertical axis --- the path preferred by the market. The farmer would somehow feel entitled and deserving of using the land in more destructive ways, providing less wildlife habitat and generating more water pollution downstream. The tyranny of merit is in acting only on the ego-based self-interest encouraged by the market, and not tempering that excessive path 0G with the empathy-based shared other interest path 0M in the common good, which some would consider the “dumb” path 0M. That is, it is “dumb” to not act only on the merit of the self-interest path 0G. Also, we might make the case it is actually a new kind of smart to serve the “dumb” wildlife and the “dumb” downstream users of the water. It is good to temper the taking of maximum profit, in a “new kind of smart,” one that is consistent with more empathy with the dumb.
Figure ST 2 helps make even more sense of the idea of Contributive Justice and the need for balance in the Private&Common Good associated with a production process. Figure ST 2 clarifies there is a value V beyond the market price P that is important to a production system. To develop the analytical system, we trace the mix of Private and Common Good along the resource line RoRo in Figure ST 1 into a possibilities frontier RoRo in Figure ST 2. We then introduce a value V, reflecting how society weighs the contributive justice of the private and common good from producing corn in different ways. And, while the market price P would suggest point A, and extreme concern for the common good would suggest point C, a balanced Private&Common Good reflecting contributive justice in value V would suggest point B.
The producer, the farmer, is rewarded by the non-monetary payoff value V as well as a payoff from the market in price P for empathizing with others downstream and with the wildlife system --- in effect acknowledging that the farm is embedded in a larger ecosystem and a community of other humans that also contribute to the productivity of the farm.
Rather than staying only within the frame of merit --- the meritocracy, the tyranny of merit --- on path 0G the farmer as producer also acknowledges that farming is really very much embedded in, and needs to reflect, the value produced on path 0M. So, it is quite appropriate to acknowledge that other value V on a more tempered path 0Z.
Need for Balance in the Private&Common-Good of the Entire Production System
The story can be generalized to every production system. In the spirit of Sandel (2020), who calls for far more attention to Contributive Justice, the essential change in the frame of reference is toward recognizing that every Private Product that is produced (from corn to computers to automobiles) also results in jointly producing a product for the Common Good. The two goods are joint, nonseparable, and interdependent, as in Private&Common Good: Formally, the iso-quants of Figure ST 1 are absolutely overlapping, with both Private Good and Common Good produced at every point. The framing shifts to empathy tempering ego, to other-interest tempering self-interest, the Common Good tempering the Private Good (and, in general, a move to Tempering Excessive Greed, see Lynne, 2020).
The production system is now concerned about and reflects the value V associated with the employee, consumer, input supplier, community, and Spaceship system in which the firm is embedded. It is no longer just about the CEO and the shareholder, as Milton Friedman (1970) proclaimed, in what came to be referred to as the Friedman Doctrine. That Doctrine which got intertwined with the Reagan Revolution gave an Economic Narrative that complemented the Tyranny of Merit, and, together, the Narrative and the Tyranny have caused the chaos.
The meritocracy ---- the tyranny of merit --- associated with maximizing self-interest as arising from producing the private good for the market which reflects only price P on path 0G is tempered by the connection represented in the shared other-interest on path 0M with:
1. input suppliers, better ensuring said suppliers could also treat their employees with justice, and that said suppliers can also use Spaceship system resources in sustainable ways;
2. employees, so, paying a decent living wage, and recognizing the need for the employee to have essential health care, vacation and family leave, and good working conditions, and respecting each employee for their contribution, no matter the job;
3. communities, ensuring the company is a true partner in the community in which it is located, otherwise embedded, perhaps helping with community sporting teams, other community events and services;
4. consumers, supplying a high quality product that truly benefits and sustains the consumer;
5. and, overall, ensuring the production process is using practices that sustain the Spaceship on which we all travel together.
The tyranny of merit for the elite who own and manage the company on path 0G, historically just for the CEO and the shareholders, is now sacrificed a bit for the culture of mutual recognition of the contribution (Contributive Justice) and sharing what is made together (Distributive Justice), as we are all in it together on the same Spaceship, on path 0M.
And, perhaps the most important outcome of all: Through working toward justice in both realms of Contribution and Distribution, we stop the tendency for those who make far too little in economic payoff for a decent living, and are not being respected for what they contribute to the economy, to succumb to the con of a strongman, to the false and impossible promises of an authoritarian with a fascist twist. It is only through both Contributive and Distributive Justice --- good balance in the Private&Public, Self&Other, Market&Government --- can we also then better ensure staying with a viable Capitalism&Democracy in a humane liberalism on path 0Z.
Time to Respect Different Kinds of Smart
It is all about respecting different kinds of smart. It is about eliminating the culture of cruelty through forming empathy based ethical systems that everyone can go along with. And, most importantly, it is about seeing the good side of merit, as in working hard is a good thing, but not a good thing if it leads to a culture of cruelty rather than empathy.
And, it is not going to be easy. It will take the kind of effort put in over the 1930-1960s period to fix it. It will mean rebuilding the government, which has been damaged and largely dismantled over the last 3-4 decades by the Extreme Right. The wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few, less than 1% of the people hold almost all of it. The cooperatives and labor unions, both of which served as essential offsets to economic power, are but a shadow of what they were in the mid-1950s, a time when things were going reasonably well, and the American Dream was still a possibility. As Putnam and Garrett (2020) make clear --- and, again, see the Blog about The Upswing ( https://www.metaeconomics.info/post/now-that-the-election-is-over ), the "We" needs to be rebuilt, as is also argued in Lynne (2020). There is simply too much "I" on both sides of political spectrum. It is only with good balance in I&We that we can hope to get back on the path to a humane liberalism based capitalism&democracy.
Not Yet Convinced?
And, if you are not convinced the framing --- smart v dumb, culture favoring the meritocracy 0f elites v culture of cruelty --- is real, consider this quote from Klein (2020) regarding the attempt at a Coupe, relating to the 2020 US Election. As Klein (2020) characterizes it, the Autocrat (an Authoritarian with a Fascist twist) and Supporters who are trying to take power, and who see it as taking power away from the corrupt elites who ostensibly stole the election:
This is, to borrow Hungarian sociologist Bálint Magyar’s framework, “an autocratic attempt.” That’s the stage in the transition toward autocracy in which the would-be autocrat is trying to sever his power from electoral check. If he’s successful, autocratic breakthrough follows, and then autocratic consolidation occurs. In this case, the would-be autocrat stands little chance of being successful. But he will not entirely fail, either. What Trump is trying to form is something akin to an autocracy-in-exile, an alternative America in which he is the rightful leader, and he — and the public he claims to represent — has been robbed of power by corrupt elites.
Metaeconomics is based in empirical reality and ethics. So, the reality that wealthy and/or educated elites are not working to help ensure the dignity of work and decent pay for others needs to be addressed. It is not only a matter of empirical reality but the outcome of ethical reflection: Science&Ethics, please. It is essential to address said issues, going back to reality based merit --- hard work is good --- but, making clear it does not lead to deserving the outcome while directing a culture of cruelty at others not as successful, characterizing said people as vile, corrupt, and/or dumb. Such framing is leading to an emerging favor for a US Autocracy (again, a kind of Authoritarianism with a Fascist twist, as in Fascist Politics and Religion) --- an autocracy in exile for now, but it is not going away. The Tyranny of Merit needs to be fixed and the Culture of Cruelty eliminated in order to put US Democracy back on path, both made possible through Empathy, as in Tempering Excessive Greed (as made clear in Lynne, 2020).
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Klein, Ezra. Trump is Attempting a Coupe in Plain Sight. Vox. November 7, 2020. https://www.vox.com/2020-presidential-election/2020/11/7/21554114/trump-election-2020-voter-fraud-challenge-recount-biden
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Payne, Keith. The Broken Ladder: How Inequality Affects the Way We Think, Live, and Die. New York: Penguin Books, 2018.
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