We can all agree that inequalities in talents are a fact of life. What we do with those inequalities is another matter altogether. The idea that we should organize those inequalities for the good of the rich and/or talented is an entirely different argument.
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Boris Johnson has recently ‘invoked’ Thatcher’s spirit in a speech where he defends greed as a valid motivator, compares the super-rich to the toiling Stakhanovites of Stalin’s Russia and suggests that the pursuit of equality is an exercise in futility. More needs to be done, he suggests, to ensure the really talented – the 2% of the population with IQs above 130 – rise to the top, spurred on by greed, envy and a general need to keep up with the Joneses.
In this article I plan on being incredibly generous to Boris Johnson. There are myriad problems with his position that I set aside.
To name a few: first, he relies on the empirically dubious assumption that wealth derives from talent as opposed to familial connections and privilege. Second, the notion that people above an IQ of 130 also happen to the very (very) rich seems to fly in the face of the kind of work most of these people are likely to do. Undoubtedly some 130+ folks will be in the boardrooms of a few investment banks but many others will be doing research in science laboratories, working in hospitals and getting public sector pay or will else have other things on their minds besides a wage. Billion pound bonuses will be miles from their thoughts as well as their bank accounts.
Even with these matters set aside, the beating heart of his philosophy (if we can call it that) is a cramped view of human potential, a denial of the value of solidarity and an amped up hopelessness regarding possibilities for change.
But let us, for the sake of argument, assume that something like a perfect meritocracy is a possibility. More, let’s say it is generally descriptive of the world we live in (nonsense though that is). Let’s further assume that people with talent rise to the top of the socio-economic order, those without it sink to the bottom. The ‘rich’ are the most talented and vice versa.
In so rising to the top, will these individuals retain the selfishness and greed Johnson suggests they will?
To strive for equality, he suggests, works against the natural propensities of people to distinguish themselves from one another. There are the talented and the less than talented and we are inevitably going to have differences in the fates of these two sets of people. It is advisable, should you agree with this view of humanity, to let the talented have at it and then encourage (but not force) them to help the lesser mortals in their peripherals.
Now Johnson might be right on one count. However we conceive of talent there are going to be potentially vast differences between the top and the bottom (although those differences in a fairer society are going to look very different to how they do today). The question is what we do with this inevitability. It is how Johnson treats inequality rather than his pointing to its existence that reveals his callous indifference and the absence of any moral compass.
Most mainstream liberals see inequality in talent as a way to raise the welfare of the less talented. The talent of the lucky ‘few’ should be developed for the good of society. With humility and a sense of solidarity the talented will remark on how fortunate they are to have been blessed with gifts that others lack. The efforts they make in the pursuit of their own happiness will be permanently checked by reference to that humility and solidarity. As one twitter response to Johnson’s speech had it: there are two kinds of successful people, the clever ones who know they’re lucky and the lucky ones who think they’re clever.
For Johnson, this humility and solidarity isn’t even a possibility. The talented, so his picture has it, are naturally greedy. Their gifts seem to displace any hope of forging solidarity with any and all others. It seems talent is never enough of a reward: there also needs to be a shed load of money chucked at the talent to make sure it gets used. Talent and the ransoming mentality come as a pair.
Johnson is therefore condemning 'the talented' to a status of ethical ignorance and moral callousness.... I think we should give them more credit than this.
Johnson is therefore the condemning ‘the talented’ to a status of ethical ignorance and moral callousness. They are advised by Johnson to keep their eye on suffering others. But not in such a way that they might impose (wait for it!) hefty taxes upon themselves or support anything above the most basic of safety nets. This would interfere with all that greed and envy working its magic.
I think we should give them more credit than this. If I was one of Boris’ ‘talented’ I’d berate him for painting me in the lurid colours of greed, coldness and a total absence of decency. It suggests that solidarity and humility are only the prerogative of other people, further down the talent spectrum. It condemns the ‘talented’ to the status of moral neanderthals!
Boris Johnson is representative of a trend on the political right that is gaining increasing acceptance. It is a long way from the liberalism of the post-war consensus that believed in things like solidarity and humility. It is instead the obnoxious neo-liberal view that who a person is and what he has, remains his irrespective of all other considerations. Nothing is owed to anybody.
From this point of view, an unconditional basic income is a bad idea because it gives ‘the talented’ far too much credit. In the never ending pursuit of one-up-man-ship a basic income makes everybody else too damned competitive. With a basic income nobody sinks low enough in the cornflakes packet for ‘the talented’ to really feel how high they are. All that envy they try to inspire comes to naught and they are left with nothing against which to distinguish themselves.
I call on all ‘the talented’ to prove Johnson wrong and support an unconditional basic income for all.
I don’t really believe they live for such a shallow and petty type of pleasure. I can’t accept that they really think they accrued all that wealth off the back of nothing but their moxy and graft. I refuse to even imagine that they would stand in the way of basic income because of the opportunity it presents to develop other people’s talents. They cannot be these creatures Johnson describes.
(And if they are, what should be done with them?)
Photo Courtesy of BackBoris