In the age of competitive victimhood, power lies in proving that you are more victimised than the other victims. This can be achieved by complaining louder and more effectively than the other complainers. The forgotten man in this context is the person who goes through life trying to take his own action, make his own luck, with his own little steps, and gets sadly left behind because he has failed to hone his complaining skills. This is a very risky position to find yourself in. Being a good complainypants takes a surprising amount of skill, and if you don't practise it diligently you won't end up achieving much by way of power in society. This will surely lead you to a tragic end, full of regret about all the missed opportunities.
In his classic essay on the forgotten man, Sumner offers a definition that's broad enough for us to substitute our own concept of who the players are in this scenario:
In the context of this blog, A and B are the complainers. They are achieving many benefits and advantages for themselves through filing complaints. Every time you see them, they are on their way to complain about something else. They are very successful at what they do, and it brings great joy and power to their lives. This is because of their moral superiority. Notice that they are not complaining to improve things for themselves, but for some other person 'X'. So when people file lawsuits they stand on the courtroom steps and say 'I brought this action so that nobody else has to suffer, and the world can become fairer for everyone'. Nobody files lawsuits to advance their own private position, obviously, because that would be selfish. It is done 'to remedy the evil and help X'.
That would not be so bad, were it not for the externalities they impose on C, the forgotten man who in this case is quietly going about his business, paying no attention to the moaners and whiners who surround him at every turn, only to find that the complainers have lobbied for new rules and procedures that are binding upon C! Oh dear. What now.
In this scenario it makes sense for C to abandon his productive activities and immediately become a complainer too, so as not to get left behind. If C doesn't engage in social speculation he'll find that others have done so on his behalf, so it's better if he joins the fray and tries to push forward his own social reforms. At least that way he'll participate in forming the rules and procedures that will be binding on himself and also on all the other people who had nothing to do with the matter. That's the beauty of democracy: everyone gets an opportunity to complain and impose their opinions on other people. Law becomes the enemy of liberty, but we don't mind because at least it supplies an avenue for complainers to achieve some power in this life and promote their own pet grievances.
This is why people fly into a panic when they see others around them complaining. The urge to start complaining too becomes irresistible when everyone around you is doing it and reaping huge rewards for their efforts. Later in life, you want to be able to look back at the path you have travelled and proudly say "I filed my fair share of complaints". If your complaints can lead to someone being fired, all the better, because it proves how effective and powerful your complaints were. Rallying people around you is also a superior way of complaining - why complain on your own when you could get all your friends to complain too? Spread the joy, your friends will thank you for it when their complaints are upheld.
If you don't complain as much as possible, you'll really feel that you're missing out, and on your deathbed you'll be full of regret about all the unfair things you never complained about. You'll be wracked with guilt for all the wrongs of this world that you never set right, because you were too busy, too preoccupied with your private pursuits, to find the time to complain about anything.
So, by complaining as much as you can, you'll at least do your bit in making the world a better place. Don't just go around being grateful because how will that give people a chance to improve? Gratitude is selfish, because it doesn't produce any improvements - by complaining, you are at least helping people to see where they fell short so they can do better next time, right? If you think about it that way you would suppose that complaining is really a moral obligation: it provides a path to making things better.
In fact, the path to making things better is quite different.
The reason why competitive victimhood arises is that human beings are constantly jostling for power and position, pushing others aside and trying to promote their own tribe. Everybody who complains about being victimised is sure to have good grounds for their complaint. No social group has a monopoly on bad behaviour, and thus social fortunes are constantly rising and waning, with first one group then another feeling ignored and overlooked when favours are being dished out.
Being able to shift the burdens of your own life onto the shoulders of other people is a seriously tempting proposition. This is the whole point of taxes: raising money from some people to fund the activities of other people. And just think of all the people around you at work, who come up with fantastic ideas of time-consuming new projects for other people to implement! They never say 'here's a great idea I'd like to implement'; no, it must always be 'here's a great idea for other people to be forced to implement'.
This is why the circle of competitive complaining is never-ending. It's a way of shifting responsibility onto other people, by complaining that they haven't shown you the love. These days, everybody complains about being bullied, and it's no longer clear who the bully is and who the victim is - because an effective way to oppress someone is to accuse them of being a bully. Thus the actual bully presents himself as the 'victim' of a wholly innocent person who was just trying to get on with their own business.
What's the way out of this stalemate?
This conception of liberty leaves no room for understanding the world as a place where the best way to achieve your goals is by complaining that other people must supply you with the stuff you want.
Robin Hood took from the rich to give to the poor. Fixing inequality within the local surrounds of Nottinghamshire was clearly achievable. All it took was a straightforward system of mandatory redistribution enforced by a band of merry men. But today it is often said that foreign aid programmes take from the poor in rich countries, to give to the rich in poor countries. Inequality between countries is therefore a complex thing to fix. Poor people in poor countries are increasingly better off as they close the global inequality gap, but poor people in rich countries (so, not poor poor in a global sense but poor by rich-country standards) are falling further behind their wealthy neighbours in the local inequality stakes.
In an ideal world, everyone would be equal, and everyone would also be free to live the life they want in pursuit of their private individual goals. We wouldn't have to choose between equality and freedom, because we'd be able to forge a world with both equality and freedom for all. There would be no trade-offs: equality and freedom would co-exist and support each other. So we would have an intricate legal framework making everyone equal, and at the same time everyone would be left free to think their own thoughts, say what they like, keep their own stuff, and freely decide whom they wished to interact with and what goals to pursue. Is this ideal achievable?
There are many branches of liberal thought, and much disagreement on how to classify the different liberal perspectives. One way to distinguish between them is by the importance they attach to private property.
The UK government's Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices identified six indicators of quality work, which may be interpreted thusly for discerning readers:
We live in an age where it is accepted that being selfish is very very bad. Everyone should care about other people in society. You should share your toys with the other children and play nicely together. You should put your neighbour's interests before your own. You should love your friends enough to lay down your life for them. You should be happy to pay higher taxes, so that those poorer than you can have a bit more money.
The platform economy is built upon new forms of work relationships created through apps and online platforms. This economy has opened up a whole new world of opportunities for those who were excluded from traditional labour markets. The internet is truly the great equalizer.
Adam Smith, being a classical liberal, had a theory of justice that seems sketchy and anaemic to modern eyes. It is often described as 'thin' because it included only three rules of justice that must be guaranteed by law:
“What about inequality and social justice?!” the people cry. In this age of Affluence and Consumerism, surely any theory of justice must ensure that we all have an equal amount of stuff and equal access to all the good things in life, so that it’s fair?
These days it seems that most people align themselves with either the political left or the political right. This rigid and simplistic dichotomy creates a lot of confusion as people try to dig up all the philosophers from ages past with the aim of classifying them as either left or right within the modern political lexicon. Hence the epic battle for Adam Smith’s legacy. If Adam Smith still walked the earth, would he be a left-leaning liberal or a right-leaning liberal?
Measuring executive pay ratios is an enormous waste of time and effort, especially when you consider that we could, instead, decide to measure something much more enlightening such as corporate productivity. Then at least our metrics would give us something to celebrate. Instead, the equality industry expends a huge amount of energy measuring the multiple by which CEOs earn more than the average worker so that they can regale us with shocking reports about how much other people earn.
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