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Democracy, Economics

A New American Dream?

Just following up on a previous post of mine on the elusiveness of the American Dream…I was impressed by a recent article written by Alex Gourevitch and Aziz Rana on whether the idea of the American Dream and equal opportunity is a promise that is ideally sought.  It’s actually a very interesting read and would recommend clicking through and reading the entire thing here.

This particular highlight jumped out at me:

The question becomes: Equal opportunity for what? For both parties, opportunity basically means a market-oriented ideal where individuals are given the chance to fight over a limited supply of high-status jobs. As it turns out, the end that each party agrees on is largely same: the equal opportunity to become unequal.

Most Democrats and Republicans share a commitment to an inegalitarian, early 21st-century version of social mobility first articulated in the United States by Thomas Jefferson. In a famous letter to John Adams, Jefferson argued that there is a “natural aristocracy amongst men” who are marked by “virtue and talents.”

…Jefferson’s view was seemingly egalitarian: Inherited status, wealth or power is undeserved. But at its heart, this view – let’s call it meritocracy – remained deeply inegalitarian. It favored a society in which the majority were deferential to, even subject to, the power and authority of the naturally talented few.

Republicans and Democrats each pay tribute to this Jeffersonian vision of meritocratic decision-making and political leadership. If anything, Democrats are often even more intent than Republicans in promoting expert authority and professional management [my emphasis].

That’s something that I’ve grappled with for a long time.  I don’t necessarily buy the talking point that a nanny state creates a level of dependency on the government for those the government is trying to help.  I also don’t begrudge people’s attempts to genuinely help people.  But I do have a problem with the “bourgeois paternalism” as David Brooks so misguidedly advocates for.  And frankly, that paternalism permeates the liberal side as much, if not more, than what takes place in conservative circles.

Now, that doesn’t mean necessarily that the next step is to advocate a free-for-all, Darwanistic society.  Instead, it means re-examining what are the goals of society.  As the authors put it:

We argue about the social and economic policies that promote equal opportunity before we figure out what kind of opportunities are important in the first place.

A change in perspective forces us to look differently at wealth and income inequality, and social stagnation. If what we care about is economic independence for all, then we have to think not just about the (very important) topic of wage levels, but above all about social power.

Now, I get that a completely meritocratic society can achieve some of these goals by the sheer realization of society members that they are just as likely to end up at the bottom of the ladder as at the top.  And this will seemingly create more empathy and social insurance for those at the bottom of the ladder.  For evidence of how this works, all Americans have to do is look across the Atlantic.  Likewise, the thinking goes that a completely meritocratic society would result in all boats being raised since the competition to get to the top would lead to better ideas, innovations and ultimately progress for society.  That may and very well could possibly be true.

But, what is increasingly important, which I think we’ve gotten away from, is the idea that by dispersing power, instead of consolidating it in a “natural aristocracy,” more people have more independence and control over their lives.  And by having more independence and control over their lives, people are more likely to be invested in the outcomes of society.  And by being more invested in the outcomes, more people are likely to be net contributors to our society.  And by more people contributing to society, we are more likely to get better outcomes.  And with better outcomes…you get the point.

A few months ago, a friend of mine took a new job with a startup  He said that it was really refreshing because the organization was really flat, that there really was no heirarchy, the CEO listened and was more of a facilitator than a dictator, everyone’s viewpoints were genuinely listened to and heard and that everyone, including the CEO was actually paid the same amount (I don’t know the differences, if any, in ownership).  No differences.  And guess what he said?  It made him more invested in the success of the company, he felt empowered, and he was going to work even harder than he normally would.

And my response to him was…

  1. That’s great!  I’m extremely happy for you!
  2. Imagine if all workers in the US and beyond were treated similarly….


One thought on “A New American Dream?

  1. Great Post. Did not realize that Jefferson had said that. Your linking both political parties to an inegalitarian outcome is very thought provoking. If skills are normally distributed I guess you would expect that some folks do have better abilities than others, and that may lead to inequality. Jimmy Carter once said something like that in a speech at the UW Madison. But he went further if we live with such a distribution, and our society is technological, rational, scientific, what are we to do about the people who just cannot make it at the bottom? Morality requires some helping out and not tossing them to the gutter. First time I have seen these ideas again. Thanx for some meat to digest, and not the fluff the main stream media dishes out for dinner.

    Posted by randel | February 16, 2012, 8:50 pm

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