Friday, March 22, 2013

Pole Position Equality

My usual defense of hierarchy almost always gets the same response out of people: "Oh, I'm fine with people not being equal, but I don't think they should start out that way." Obama pushed this ideal in his State of the Union address: everyone deserves a shot, theoretically the same shot, so they can succeed according to their talents and drive.


I hear this opinion often enough that it's easy to think it's a majority, and it gets really tiring after a while. This sounds so reasonable to most people, and I rarely actively fight it because doing so would require hacking through a lifetime of sloppy thinking on the part of whoever throws it out as common sense. And, of course, I look like a dick. I'm fairly sure that most people who say this think that they're saying what they need to say to be on everyone's side at once, making a good compromise. They don't want to piss off the libertarians and conservatives who insist on talking about merit. They don't want to piss off the liberals who insist on talking about the trap of inequality that holds down the bottom, including - oh noes! - children! The poor children!

Well, supporting the idea of everyone starting out equal and then allowing people to become unequal by their own decisions is one I call pole position equality. You want the test of merit without the backlog of the past, which totally misses the point, but I guess I need to address the idea anyway.

To understand why pole position equality has such popularity and to begin understanding why it is so flawed, you need to understand that the concept is attached to understandings of identity that are relatively new, and it has ideologically displaced something that came before it. That "something" is the institution of family; pole position equality and family as an institution are directly opposed to one another. Suffice it to say for now, the institution of family has been beaten into submission, just an emotional connection to people and not a critical economic one, where the parents are responsible less for the material welfare of the child than their self-esteem, and where elders are not authority figures but just the people who are expected to always let you crash on their couch. Society has been trying to ditch that ideal of family as a full and cohesive institution for some time now, based on a preference for pure individualism that says children don't deserve to be hamstrung by the mistakes of their parents. Structurally, it's an ugly, stupid mess that's assaulted our sense of accountability, as well as our sense of who we are.

Is This Even Possible?

Take their position argumentatively. Let's be clear about what you're saying: you want people to be able to start out on a level playing field, but you don't want equality. In a society where time continues to pass, you want there to be some zero-point where people start from - where everyone starts from - that is the same, that being at the beginning of their lives. If that isn't happening, then merit, as a concept, is bullshit.

Okay, try describing a world in which every child starts out equally. The first and most obvious element would be parity in financial investments for the child, like education and health care. But beyond this, what would equality entail?

Well, what wouldn't it entail? What would not be covered under the banner of equality? Certainly, the inequalities of education and health care are not the end of the story; really, given all the impact parents still have, would it be feasible at all to allow children to even live with their parents, if you were seriously going for childhood equality? No, of course not. Anything of substance that the parent gets wrong - or right - would affect the children later on. Confidence, practical knowledge of the world, talent, and expectations are to some degree still a product of family-taught lessons. As soon as society begins to address one problem in the quest for equality, we begin to see the layers of character shaping that go into a child, and the entire notion of making them all equal at the start has to go out the window. You would have to sequester children from their own parents to take the next step beyond what we already have, and what we have is already a waste.

Then there's genetics, which many people want to pretend is completely irrelevant despite the mountains of scientific evidence to the contrary. Every child is equal? Please.

Family is the primary structure of socialization, and attempts to thwart the advantages conferred by family are attempts to devalue it. What we're seeing here is the result of institutional competition, where the benefits of scale available from the government, namely extreme wealth, are overwhelming the institution of family. The popular conception of family today - as simple relationships between people who love one another, and that's that - fades when treated no differently than ties outside of blood, and so do the incentives and sense of responsibility that goes with raising a family. The nature of family inherently infers inequality, because the actions of parents are motivated by genuine risk of failure. Without genuine responsibility, including that risk, the meaning of the institution dies.

The practical problem with notions of equality, regardless of time frame, is that we do not live in a world where people "start out" at all. Birth is not a buzzer that indicates the point at which who you are starts to get shaped according to your wishes. Your wishes get shaped by your environment in a constant process that started long before your conception. You are the result of that environment, with its causes and effects in everything from the orbit of the moon to genetic mutations to TV ratings. Because of this, one way or another, you have to look at society through a lens that spans generations. It is not a sport where someone fires a gun and the race begins. Trying to make things "equal" turns into an apologia to the disadvantaged that goes on forever.

People today hate the reality of this. They want to be individuals, not their parents' children, just like they don't want some authority figure telling them what to do. We clearly hate our past and ignore elements of legacy in favor of our individual self-interest. But there's no organizational way around the potential for family-based advantage. Every child is an investment, and family investment is a constant historical process that does not restart along the time dimension with every individual birth. To want everyone to start out in the same place, in the pole position, is to want society to build a track that is almost infinitely wide and which has no length. There is no occupied track behind it and none in front. The perspective is that of only one life, starting from a vacuum and ending there. This isn't a compromise of different valid concepts. It's the result of egoism so pervasive that we can't see it anymore. Trying to start the race over because we have a "superior" understanding of what constitutes social justice now is pure arrogance and more a tactic in a power game than anything connected to reality.

All the problems with trying to get rid of hierarchy continue to exist, and isolating the point of equality to the non-existent starting line helps not one iota to make it more practical, unless you're willing to make every child a ward of the state, doing the egalitarian thing and fucking everyone equally.

It gets very messy, as people have their own children and continue to want advantages for them. Nepotism be damned, parents have a hard time telling other parents not to help their children; they know that, in their position, they would do the same. Parents still want to pass on their lineage, live vicariously through the kids, get them the best - meaning better than others - in health care and education, even pass on their religion and their love of country and everything else of value to them. But they don't see it as fair that they can't provide the same benefits conferred by the more successful parents, likely because of disadvantages conferred by their parents. Cutting into people's personal and family business to break the cycle always seems like a moral good. This isn't mean-spirited on anyone's part, but in the face of an arbitrary universe, humanistic types choose to start everyone over wherever they can. This is a society where the kids who are bad at the game, or their friends, are constantly yelling "do-over!" Lessons end up going unlearned when the incentives line up this way, and people stop taking on those unfair burdens of the past.

Not Merit but Meaning

I'm not here to push the notion of individual merit; that concept that has no reality outside of a specific cultural context, and what we recognize as merit is actually nothing more than fluent ability within one system. What does matter, what really does have existence as an idea outside of our perceptions, is accountability, totally different from merit. Accountability means that the past is laid at your feet at birth, the situation - the debt - passed on to you. If you had good parents, then a surplus is passed on, hatred of inherited wealth notwithstanding. There are different forms of inheritance; our present IS ruled by our past, defined by it. And if this idea hurts you, then your sense of appreciation for that past is so screwed up that pretty much no one can help. Yes, we have to deal with the shit of our forefathers; we also have the incredible privilege of existing thanks to them, and there's little reason to believe that we've now reached some magical point where we no longer need to organize responsibilities in a way where people face pressure and adversity from their background. Carrying on a proud lineage or overcoming a shady one provides much needed identity for the individual, the struggle not obsolete, not irrelevant, only unpopular to accept.

But still, the broader society handles more of the task of shaping the child today, more than ever; the ideal is that same egomaniacal, atomistic individualism that flatters in the short run and destroys in the long run. Pole position equality, as a concept, promotes individualism rigidly by viewing justice in purely individualistic terms, but it damns it with its insistence that child welfare is a social issue like environmental regulation. I'm sure the people who support this want to look at the system as existing for the sake of the individual, allowing them to pursue success, while retaining some compatibility with popular notions of social justice, but that isn't going to happen. You cannot damn individualism and use it for your political purposes at the same time, then expect to be taken seriously. At least with straight egalitarians, we have consistency. The pole position egalitarians don't even have that, and all the dissatisfactions that go along with hierarchy will be amplified by their failed attempts to create a society that is objectively fair; you're better off accepting class, raising proud plebeians with a sense of place rather than promising shit you can't deliver.

At the end of the day, this becomes a matter of identity. We have been raised by movies, TV, magazines, the web, and public schools. They set the standards for what constitutes good upbringing, they determine what success looks like, and they have the power to monopolize attention needed to promote that perspective over the long term. Our parents, in comparison, are less and less relevant to our worldview; we like that, too, cleaning the slate. That sounds fair to you, doesn't it? More and more, we becomes less members of our family and more members of a amorphous cultural blob who's values change like stock market trends. The alienation of this sort of life is damning. We weren't built for this. We weren't built to pick and choose our sense of self like we're shopping. And we certainly were not built to go without an identity attached to the people who birthed us. Naturalism is not a defense of anything - family works better from the perspectives of fiscal solvency and moral ecosystem management as well - but why the hell did we ever think otherwise? Were we just too childish and disrespectful of others to mind our business? We had to get our stupid, grubby fingers into the relationships between parents and children that had been established in that dynamic for centuries, and for what? To spare ourselves the heartache of seeing some families fail?

For men in particular, the current situation creates terrible gaps where the ideal of leaving a family legacy used to reside. Their primary value in the family - economic provisioning - is too easily discarded, and they are left only as helping hands to the emotionally supportive mother. The advantage of the new individualism is that they need not have their personal goals screwed up by lack of birth control, but that's a child's preference. For adult men who would take being a head of household seriously if they were offered due respect for it, you cannot tell them that providing for their children matters when society will provide for them regardless of what they do. They know they are irrelevant.

Want to change this? I do, too, but I'm not holding my breath for people to come back around to family. They'd rather create, and leave, "families" whenever they feel something intuitively, the Disney version of family: your family is whoever you like. This is not working; it doesn't push people to stick together. They don't need each other so much, so after a while, they look for greener pastures. If you turn family into a commodity, people will treat it like one, with all the disposable devaluing that implies.

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