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On the Fictitious Link Between Magnitude of Pay and Competence: 1

February 7, 2015 15 comments

One of the major beliefs necessary for the “normal” functioning of modern nation states (capitalist or otherwise) is that there is a direct linkage between a person’s pay and the important of their occupation. That is how, for example, people justify paying a surgeon more than a person who cleans sewers- though the later saves more lives than the former. Now some of you might say that it easier to clean and maintain sewers than perform neurosurgery, and that is partially true.

But not all hard to learn skills are paid well. For example, somebody who can juggle 6 knives or fart a musical tune (something that very few can do) will almost never make anywhere near the amount of money made by your average mid-level executive drone. Faced by the necessity to explain this problem, most people will quickly turn to a secondary explanation.

Most people want to believe that pay is correlated to the difficulty of an occupation AND its social necessity.

While this explanation might satisfy most people, it is also demonstrably false. Consider any number of recent cases where the CEOs or board members of large corporations receiving extremely generous severance packages while the majority of employees got pretty close to nothing. Or what about highly paid celebrities and entertainers? Are they really that much better than their peers who did not were less lucky? I could give you many more examples, but that will detract from the next point.

At the start of this post, I used the term “modern nation states”. Did you wonder why I used that term instead of others like “societies” or “countries”? Well.. that term is important because of the role played by that type of entity in this justification of income inequality. In previous eras income inequality was justified through the commission, or threat of, theft or murder.

The feudal knights, lords, vassals and kings of previous eras were not rich because they were “good”, “moral” or competent. They were rich because they could gather an entourage of followers large enough to terrorize and steal from people who could not do so. Sure.. some pretended that were of “noble birth” and “superior morals”- but collection of rents, taxes and tributes was always reliant on the threat of lethal force rather than their “noble birth” or “superior morals”.

The birth and evolution of the modern nation-state has certainly changed some of that. With a few exceptions, countries are no longer run by people who claim a special divine right to rule. Moreover, modern states do at least try to provide some basic level of legally guaranteed benefits and services to their general population. Yet in other respects, these entities are not that different from their pre-modern counterparts. Revenue collection is still done by the threat of force, torture or death and sovereignty is still defined by a monopoly on violence.

Then there is the issue of dressing older patterns of functioning in new explanations. As I mentioned previously, pre-modern societies were quite open about the fact that being rich (or well paid) was about being more lucky, violent or crooked than your peers. However this plain but depressing explanation is not compatible with societies of the complexity we live in today. Just think about how long modern societies would last if most people understood that the amount of money they received was proportional to their luck, ability to be violent or crookedness.

The necessity to cover up and justify income inequality has given rise to a new mythology- the lie of “meritocracy”. According to this new lie, the amount of money and power a person possess has a strong connection with their “IQ”, “competence” and “ability”. In other words, it claims that those with money are smart, competent and deserving and those without it are not. Of course there are obvious exceptions to this “rational” model of the world, but they are explained away as exceptions that prove the rule.

While this rational-sounding explanation might satisfy enough commoners, especially during times of economic growth, it carries within itself the seeds of its own demise. To understand what I am going to say next, you have to understand that not all lies are equally dangerous to the liar. For example- lies told to others are, usually, not especially harmful to the liar. In contrast to that, lies that people tell themselves can be extremely dangerous because people frequently believe their own lies.

In the next part of this series, I will use a few examples of illustrate why the “meritocracy” lie prevalent in modern nation states is significantly more dangerous than the pre-modern lies it replaced.

What do you think? Comments?