torstai 22. toukokuuta 2014
Balzac, Austen, Piketty
Ote Thomas Pikettyn kirjasta Capital in the Twenty-First Century. The Belknap Press of
Ranskasta englanniksi kääntänyt Arthur Goldhammer. Harvard University
Notwithstanding the extravagance of some of their characters, these nineteenth-century novelists describe a world in which inequality was to a certain extent necessary: if there had not been a sufficiently wealthy minority, no one would have been able to worry about anything other than survival. This view of inequality deserves credit for not describing itself as meritocratic, if nothing else. In a sense, a minority was chosen to live on behalf of everyone else, but no one tried to pretend that this minority was more meritorious or virtuous than the rest. In this world, it was perfectly obvious, moreover, that without a fortune it was impossible to live a dignified life. Having a diploma or skill might allow a person to produce, and therefore to earn, 5 or 10 times more than the average, but not much more than that. Modern meritocratic society, especially in the United States, is much harder on the losers, because it seeks to justify domination on the grounds of justice, virtue, and merit, to say nothing of the insufficient productivity of those at the bottom.
It is interesting, moreover, to note that the most ardent meritocratic beliefs are often invoked to justify very large wage inequalities, which are said to be more justified than inequalities due to inheritance.
From the time of Napoleon to World War I, France has had a small number of very well paid and high-ranking civil servants (earning 50–100 times the average income of the day), starting with government ministers. This has always been justified—including by Napoleon himself, a scion of the minor Corsican nobility—by the idea that the most capable and talented individuals ought to be able to live on their salaries with as much dignity and elegance as the wealthiest heirs (a top-down response to Vautrin, as it were). As Adolphe Thiers remarked in the Chamber of Deputies in 1831: “prefects should be able to occupy a rank equal to the notable citizens in the départements they live in.” In 1881, Paul Leroy-Beaulieu explained that the state went too far by raising only the lowest salaries. He vigorously defended the high civil servants of his day, most of whom received little morethan “15,000 to 20,000 francs a year”; these were “figures that might seem enormous to the common man” but actually “make it impossible to live with elegance or amass savings of any size.”
The most worrisome aspect of this defense of meritocracy is that one finds the same type of argument in the wealthiest societies, where Jane Austen’s points about need and dignity make little sense. In the United States in recent years, one frequently has heard this type of justification for the stratospheric pay of supermanagers (50–100 times average income, if not more). Proponents of such high pay argued that without it, only the heirs of large fortunes would be able to achieve true wealth, which would be unfair. In the end, therefore, the millions or tens of millions of dollars a year paid to supermanagers contribute to greater social justice. This kind of argument could well lay the groundwork for greater and more violent inequality in the future. The world to come may well combine the worst of two past worlds: both very large inequality of inherited wealth and very high wage inequalities justified in terms of merit and productivity (claims with very little factual basis, as
noted). Meritocratic extremism can thus lead to a race between supermanagers and rentiers, to the detriment of those who are neither.
It also bears emphasizing that the role of meritocratic beliefs in justifying inequality in modern societies is evident not only at the top of hierarchy but lower down as well, as an explanation for the disparity between the lower and middle classes. In the late 1980s, Michèle Lamont conducted several hundred in-depth interviews with representatives of the “upper middle class” in the United States and France, not only in large cities such as New York and Paris but also in smaller cities such as Indianapolis and Clermont-Ferrand. She asked about their careers, how they saw their social identity and place in society, and what differentiated them from other social groups and categories.
One of the main conclusions of her study was that in both countries, the “educated elite” placed primary emphasis on their personal merit and moral qualities, which they described using terms such as rigor, patience, work, effort, and so on (but also tolerance, kindness, etc.). The heroes and heroines in the novels of Austen and Balzac would never have seen the need to compare their personal qualities to those of their servants (who go unmentioned in their texts).