Merit and Worth

“We must do away with the absolutely specious notion that everybody has to earn a living. It is a fact today that one in ten thousand of us can make a technological breakthrough capable of supporting all the rest. The youth of today are absolutely right in recognizing this nonsense of earning a living. We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everybody has to be employed at some kind of drudgery because, according to Malthusian-Darwinian theory, he must justify his right to exist. So we have inspectors of inspectors and people making instruments for inspectors to inspect inspectors. The true business of people should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living.”
-R. Buckminster Fuller

Normally, when people are quoted, it is done for the purpose of bolstering their own point of view. Not so in this case.

R. Buckminster Fuller, humanitarian par extraordinaire, genius and visionary: this is one of those occasions where he just stepped in it. Like that time he claimed politics would be extinct by the year 2000. Everyone is allowed their fair share of mistakes, and the inventor of the term “Spaceship Earth” merits a lion’s share, but I just can’t make myself gloss over this one.

I would really like to believe we are an enlightened species. I would really like to believe it is in our nature to work for the betterment of all mankind, rather than just our own lot. Post-scarcity economics just sounds so personally fulfilling; like all our work can be converted into food, shelter, entertainment, health and meaning for the entire planet’s population, and without pollution.

The problem isn’t in the societal model. I’m confident the maths work out for post-scarcity economics. I’m confident it works like a charm in THEORY. The problem is with us. Humanity does not take well to forced, overt altruism.

Have you ever done charity work? Did you do so voluntarily? Or did you do it because you were forced to? Therein lies the rub. The legend of Teutonia, the communist commune in McKean county, should be known to you if you are interested in the history of altruism and/or socialism. German settlers purchased land, sold 660 shares for one hundred dollars a pop and set out to create a utopia where everyone could contribute as much as they could and partake in the fruits of their labours to their hearts’ content.

It all failed badly, although this one story should not in itself be taken as evidence that altruism doesn’t work. My contention is this: man is neither purely selfish nor purely altruistic, but establishing a society based upon either extreme is a losing proposition. Simple evolution by natural selection sees to this: in every established order there is room for a certain number of deviants who do not contribute according to the norm. They either provide less or in excess of expectations. When the number or degree of divergence grows too great, that society suffers upheaval and must either change or excise the deviants.

“Excise the deviants” – a marvellous obfuscation and euphemism for putting people against a wall and shooting them. Yet it is something mankind has done for thousands of years, changing our societies to better accomodate greater numbers of citizens, or the better to please the greatest power base.

This does not mean that mankind is inherently evil or mean, just that the way we work together has a stress limit. We do not like to be exploited beyond a certain level. Others taking advantage of our efforts make our bile rise, especially if we did not offer them these boons freely.

We could feed the entire world, put an end to crime, illness, strife and explore outer and inner space to our hearts’ content, but we won’t do it this way. This way leads to resentment, envy, distrust, schisms and withdrawal. It’s the way we are. What makes us great is our ability to excel, to push beyond boundaries, to strive for that which lies just beyond our reach, and never in the history of the world have we successfully entered into a social contract based on excellence for the common good, with one possible exception: the military. Militaristic hegemonies like Rome or Sparta excelled due to their meritocratic nature, but they would inevitably fail. Rome outgrew their structural design, and Sparta failed to replenish their warrior caste as they expanded. Today, militaries remain meritocratic societies-within-societies, yet unable to ever change.

So how to make a perfect world? I have my ideas, which are closely linked to my own philosophical, religious and ideological convictions. They are based on my apprehension of human nature, which may or may not be the same as yours. What I can tell you is that the way forward is THROUGH the self, not away from it. That sounds suitably cryptic.

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