Sunday, June 29, 2008

Two Ways To Organize a Society

Two ways to organize society are equity and achievement. Under the equity principle there can be economic inequality only if it is associated with equal opportunity and if the inequality optimally benefits the disadvantaged. Under an achievement theory, society is best off if it is organized so that the quantity and quality of achievement is optimized. Thus, a nation like Athens would certainly not qualify under the equity principle because there was slavery, but it would qualify under the achievement principle as one of the great societies in history.

Principles like these are not easily tested empirically. Only through history can we judge whether societies that operate under one optimizing rule or the other have worked best. One problem is execution. Few societies (ancient Sparta is one) have been able to establish equal opportunity. If they could, the result would likely be unsatisfactory. The poorest and the wealthiest people in society would possibly be much worse off precisely because of equality of opportunity. This is because achievement is the source of progress and achievement is possible only if there is inequality.

In his book Creativity: Beyond the Myth of Genius* Robert W. Weisberg of Temple University argues against the idea that creativity results from genius or luck. Rather, creativity results from focused application of ordinary thinking based on well-developed expertise. Creative works are not "set breaking" and do not constitute "revolutions", but rather build on prior inventions and pre-existing knowledge bases. Weisberg writes that to encourage creativity in the young "we should emphasize development of deep expertise in a particular domain"**. As well, motivation to create plays a role. To motivate people to be creative "exposure at an early age to subject matter in the arts and sciences, structured in such a way as to appeal to the young, can result in a child's naturally developing an interest in some area. At a later age exposure to mentors can play multiple roles." Even with respect to prodigies: "these skills will not express themselves without strong support from the environment, especially the family, as we the case of Mozart and Picasso. Thus, even the most talented must have the right environment if their talent is to bear fruit."

If Weisberg is right, then achievement depends in part on unique opportunities. It is impossible to provide the same nurturing to all, nor would it be desirable. To create a society where all have the opportunity to be Mozart, it would be necessary to exclude anyone's being a Picasso. To create a society where Mozart would not be entitled to the rewards of Mozart's work would likely de-motivate him. But even the worst-off member of society benefits to a large degree from Mozart's creative genius (or Puff Daddy's).

It is true that the achievement theory leads to distributional inequity. Some achieve more than others, and this in part is due to skills developed in the family at an early age. But does that mean that the achievement theory is inequitable? It may be that the worst off is best off in a society that stimulates achievement through the recognition of basic rights.

In addition, there is the question of pragmatic execution. What have been the outcomes of societies organized along the lines of equity and what have been the outcomes of societies organized along the lines of achievement? When the equity principle was first brought to public awareness in the eighteenth century there was considerable injustice. (It also is true that few societies had been organized along any lines but tribal at that time.) Throughout the nineteenth century, societies such as England and America that were organized on the achievement principle were attacked as inequitable. Yet, in the twentieth century, societies that were organized on the equity principle, such as the Soviet Union, Nazi German and Red China, committed far worse atrocities than any in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Today, the United States and England have increasingly been organized along equity principles, but the two societies are less, not more, equitable than they were under the achievement principle.

Thus, there is a gulf between the theory of equity and the results of the equitable philosophy because human nature and human power needs do not coincide with the cool rationality of a philosopher's anticipating outcomes under a "veil of ignorance". Thus, the resolution of the dispute between equity and achievement needs to be reviewed empirically and experimentally, not through philosophical speculation.

Achievement may be defined as a creative act that merits social recognition. The social recognition evolves because the creative act is helpful to at least a portion of society. The best way to motivate socially useful action is through fair reward. Because there is no true way to determine the fairness of rewards, and because human reason is inevitably self-serving and biased, the fairest way is to let the marketplace determine them.

*Robert W. Weisberg, Creativity: Beyond the Myth of Genius. New York: W.H. Freeman and Company, 1993.

**As well, this contradicts the idea that basic skills are unimportant to creativity, a fundamental precept of progressive education.

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