Friday, March 6, 2015

Society and Success

Success: It's not about money.

One of the critiques of "libertarian" and "classical liberalism" I answer is that these philosophical lines encourage greed, especially in the democratic capitalism of the United States.

Seeking your own success does not have to correspond to the pursuit of wealth as measured by bank statements and material goods. Authentic classical liberalism allows me to pursue whatever fulfillment I seek, without a government bureaucrat deciding we have too many artists, or too many doctors. We pursue our dreams — and the market demand determines if we can earn a "good enough" living.

And yet, there are cultural pressure in our society to count and tally our success in unhealthy ways.

Since childhood I have feared being poor. My family lived in tiny apartments, mobile homes, and small houses. We had "enough" but were always closer to less than more. My wife and I have lost everything. We have been broke. I had no checking or savings. No credit card. Nothing but the generosity of others. And it was horrible. But we survived.

For me, and many other upwardly mobile individuals, that dread of failure, of having nothing, makes us vulnerable to those social pressures of counting things. Oddly enough, you don't stop counting when you move into the top quintile, either.

In 2012, the top quintile started at $104,097. The average household income of families in the top fifth was $181,905 (Brookings Institute, June 2014). The top five percent of households had an average income of $318,052… and that top five percent started at $191,156 — not exactly Carnegie or Rockefeller wealth.

If you read those numbers, as I do, and consider where your household falls, is that a healthy way to look at success? It cannot be, and it should not be how we value ourselves.

My wife and I are successful, now. And I worry about that success vanishing. For the "semi-wealthy" or whatever we might call ourselves, there's a dread that the fall down is a matter of one lost job, one major illness, or the loss of a spouse. For some reason, we cannot relax and feel secure: we've worried our way to the top.

Unfortunately, the middle class tends to compare wealth… constantly. I hear it from my neighbors and coworkers. People earning decent salaries, with homes and cars and nice vacations, worry and compare.

Over the last three years, I have become shallower. I have let myself fall into the money matters nonsense of the competitive middle class, at home and at work. This need to prove to others that we are okay is fed by the poor manners of some people around us. I end up responding to their misguided bragging when I should walk away and remain quiet.

It isn't libertarianism or neo-liberalism or any other -ism that makes people behave this way. I've talked to anthropologists and historians about other cultures (and other times) when comparisons were different, yet still existed. Comparison to others seems to be a natural motivation to do better… but we should also be wise enough to know when comparisons cross a line and become unhealthy.

Looking at data, though, doesn't ease the stress.

I'm a contract university professor. I could have my hours cut to part-time. I could lose my job. Things could happen that would, in a moment, remove us from the top quintile. It shouldn't matter so much, but it does.

On the other hand, I worry about liking and doing things that are "conspicuous" and coming across as a jerk.

My wife and I are considering a new vehicle. I caught myself thinking about what the neighbors and my coworkers might think of various choices. No, I wasn't thinking about impressing anyone. Instead, I was wondering if we shouldn't get the best rated, second-highest mileage vehicle (by 1 MPG), because it might look like we were trying to show off to someone.

This is the current state of counting and competing: we want just enough to be equal to our neighbors, but we don't want to seem better than anyone else. We want to fit in with our friends, neighbors, and coworkers.

When what we should be wanting is whatever "success" means to us personally.

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