Sunday, October 8, 2017

We Sacrifice

I was listening to the Radio Atlantic episode on "What Are Public Schools For?," and I noticed an interesting formulation. When The Atlantic editor Alex Wagner talks about the choice of public versus private schools, she says: "There is this sense of: 'Ooooh, am I sacrificing my kid'?"

This idea, that for people with the resources to have a choice in the matter, sending their children to public school on the grounds that a diverse student body in public education benefits not only the other children in the school but society as a whole, represents such a gutting of those children's opportunities later in life that it can be regarded as a figurative form of human sacrifice (and as such, an abrogation of parental responsibility) points to a persistent problem that exists within the modern United States. (Not that this exists only with in the United States, but this is where I live, and so I will limit myself to that.) How does one create a society of diverse socioeconomic levels of wealth, income and opportunity without the people at the upper levels of the distribution feeling that they are simply feeding resources that they prefer to spend on them and theirs into the lower levels of the distribution to no tangible benefit?

It's worth noting that this is not necessarily "zero-sum" thinking. Imagine for a moment a group of 10 people, where 9 people have $1 each, and the 10th has $3. If Ten grants One through Nine 10¢ each, and by virtue of this, everyone is able to generate another 5¢, then the total pool of money between them increases from $12 to $12.50. "Everyone is better off" in that the average wealth has increased from $1.20 to $1.25 (and Ten is still in a better position than their peers), but this does not alter the fact that this cost Ten 85¢ when it's all said and done. And to the degree that Ten is sensitive to that loss, this seems like a bad deal for them if they aren't otherwise inclined to charity.

An argument can be made, and it often is, that in the face of a 3:1 disparity in circumstances, that Ten has a moral obligation to share some of what they have to benefit the group as a whole, even if that means becoming personally worse off in the bargain, but if Ten felt that obligation themselves, there would be no need to impose it upon them from without.

As I see it, the problem is this: our society, overall, is poor at articulating the benefits of bettering society as a whole will have for everyone in society and/or at demonstrating to people that the individual costs of bettering society as a whole are minimal. And if one cannot do either of these things well, then there will always be resistance (typically born of fear) from "them what has" to contributing to the overall pot. While the common rationale for this resistance is "greed," it's worth pointing out that a lot of people who one might reasonably view as well-off have been taught to see themselves as poor (where poor means having difficulty meeting their perceived needs or being unable to weather shocks). And to be sure, people are still teaching it. And once someone has learned to see themselves as poor, they're less likely to willingly give, as they see the risk to themselves as high. And lest I be accused of attempting to garner sympathy for the Devil, the less well-off also have this problem. While people tout globalization as being good for the nation as a whole, and thus worth sacrificing domestic jobs in industries that are cheaper abroad, a 25% reduction in the price of some consumer goods seems like a poor trade to someone who is forced into a 30% pay cut due to their skills being obsoleted out from under them. And in this, it's worth pointing out that sometimes, the costs of bettering society as a whole are not minimal - in fact they can be fairly substantial. And what tends to happen here is that our society fails to make it up to people. Rather they are left holding the bag for the windfall that others receive (and, seeing themselves as straited, are unwilling to share).

Once upon a time, the idea behind sacrifice was that it was a form of payment. The Gods have done things for the community, and the community repays that through returning to The Gods some of what they had gained as a result. (This leaves out propitiation, but that's a somewhat different topic.) But sacrifice has somewhat morphed in the intervening millennia, and is now often considered something that is given up or destroyed without a reciprocal benefit. And it's this idea that becomes toxic in the context of social benefits. People at all levels of a society are more likely to give willingly when they perceive that they are making an investment that will result in some sort of return that they care about, rather than simply making a transfer payment at their own expense. Whether that be in the area of education, social services or economics, a society that is regarded as a win-win is likely to work better than one that creates winners and losers.

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