I’ll get straight to the point: normal human beings are allergic to the truth. They will lie, cheat and distort in order to service their political beliefs. What’s more, they never choose their political beliefs based on a logical process, unless you count shameless pursuit of ones own interests as a logical process. And the worst part of all? People, by evolutionary design, don’t even realize how hypocritical they really are.
So what does this have to do with the pursuit of equality? In theory, nothing, but in light of the above, you have to wonder… Is the ideology of equality one of fairness, or just a power-grab?
Now, before I go any further, yes, I do understand that the poor have it tough. I’ve done time in the depths of penury, struggling to pay for food. So have most students. It’s not fun, although its character building if it doesn’t last too long.
But the real problem with poverty is not the lack of material goods, or even the lack of food. After all, even amongst America’s homeless, one-third are obese and only 2% are underweight.
No, the real problem with poverty is the loss of social status.
People are evolved to be acutely sensitive to changes in relative social status. There are good reasons for this – for instance, amongst hunter gatherers, murder accounts for around 30% of all male deaths. In such violent societies, it’s important that you’re a respected member of your group, unless you want to end up dead. Even today, it’s much harder to make a living when your friends don’t have your back.
The trouble with equality is that it’s not about the money – it’s about the status and respect that comes with it. Social status and economic status are closely linked in our society, so much so that they are often referred to by the compound word socio-economic status. But status is always a zero sum game. By seeking economic solutions to psychological problems, we create a society that will eternally seek to hamstring the economically productive just so we can bring them down a notch.
A good example of a jurisdiction that has found a different solution can be found in Northern Canada. I’m against whaling: I think it’s anachronistic and barbarous, and a waste of an important part of the ecosystem. But the Inuit in Northern Canada have a long history of whaling, one that continues even today. It’s not commercial whaling, just small scale hunting in small boats.
Giving limited whaling rights to the Inuit has been extremely successful in giving them self-respect at very little cost to wider society. Do the Inuit have what it takes to reach the heights of wealth or power? They haven’t shown much evidence of it. But within their own culture, one founded on traditional hunting, they have status, so what do they care? Sure, we could pursue expensive policies of affirmative action to get them into Southern universities, maybe set up a quota system into top corporate jobs. But sometimes culture is more important than money.
Meanwhile, South Africa and Zimbabwe have taken a different path. After then end of White rule, Blacks in both countries wanted to get back their self-respect. They wanted to take back the commanding heights of political and economic power. They wanted to be masters of their own destiny.
The result has been a disaster. People were promoted on the basis of race rather than ability. Rules were torn up, cronyism, nepotism and eventually in Zimbabwe, kleptocracy, replaced previously functioning (if racially limited) democracies.
The unfortunate truth is that meritocracy is at once necessary, and inherently unfair. In the US Navy, there are around 1000 fighter pilots, but only 20 of them are women (see the doco Speed and Angels, in part about a struggling young female Tomcat pilot). The first woman to become a fighter pilot, Kara Hultgreen, was killed behind the boat, a crash that was entirely her own fault and almost killed her back-seater. Given the then-recent Tailhook Sex Scandal, it was no surprise that instructors would have rushed through a young woman who wasn’t yet ready to fly the difficult F-14. Intentionally or not, standards were dropped to save face.
People are acutely sensitive to extraneous, external influence, even when they are not consciously aware of this fact. Sometimes this works against equality, other times it works for it. But as long as the promotion of equality takes political precedence over the promotion of rational economic outcomes, we will continue to see wastefully inappropriate promotions and affirmative action programs.
If the above example is any indication, the better solution is to root out cases where bias is acting against equality, then eliminate the bias. Introducing pro-female or pro-minority bias is no substitute for eliminating bias altogether and promoting good decision making. Society needs to find ways to give people social status without shoehorning them into non economically-productive positions. If someone isn’t performing in high school or university or the workplace, the only humane thing to do is to find a place that they can fit in, at the lowest cost (or greatest gain) for wider society. Affirmative action just makes an uncomfortable farce even more painful.
Society needs to grow up and accept that life is inherently unfair. Not everybody is going to get rich. Not everybody is going to be smart. Women simply can’t be good mothers and good employees at the same time. If the epidemic of autism in the tech community is any indication, people can’t have social skills and technical skills at the same time. Men, especially white men, have a lot of inherent advantages.
The pursuit of equality makes us all poorer.