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.
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 two kinds of equality – formal equality and substantive equality. The idea that all men are born equal expresses formal equality, and everybody agrees with that. No problems there. But the idea that everybody should have the same amount of wealth expresses substantive equality, and not everybody agrees with that. Why should people be equal in relation to the amount of stuff they have? Why is it unfair for someone else to have more stuff than you?
Basic human liberties such as freedom of speech, freedom of conscience and freedom to acquire and hold private property are more important than economic prosperity in an abstract sense.
Many people today assume that life is ideally supposed to be fair, so they take it as self-evident that others must be forced by law to provide various things from within their own resources, in order to make everything fair. In other words, everyone has to share nicely with those around them even if they don't want to. In the pursuit of fairness, other values such as liberty and the freedom to choose are relegated to the sidelines. This results from measuring the value of how much you've achieved by reference to what others have achieved.
When people support notions of economic equality it's not always clear exactly what they have in mind. In Capitalism and Freedom Friedman challenges us to think about the meaning of 'equality' in the context of a market economy. If we are to translate the ideals of equality into reality we'll need a conceptual framework that's a bit more sophisticated than 'everyone having the same amount of stuff' or 'paying everyone the same wage'.
It's official. The Economist reports that America is the country where people care the least about inequality. Many Americans care about inequality, sure, just not as high a proportion as, say, the number of people in Sweden or just about any other rich country where people care very much about inequality and have the high taxes to prove it.
The best thing to do if you get fired is to gather up your worldly possessions and hit the road in search of your next adventure.
The concept of job security has four completely different meanings:
Employment ‘at will’ is the idea that a worker can quit at any time for good reason, bad reason, or no reason at all. Similarly the employer can fire any of the workers at any time for good reason, bad reason or no reason at all.
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