Entries in Politics (5)
“Les tyrans ne sont grands que parce que nous sommes à genoux.”
Étienne de La Boétie, from the essay Discours de la servitude volontaire ou le Contr’un, published posthumously in 1576.
The line, modified by the replacement of “Tyrants” with “The great” and by the unnecessary and anticlimactic coda “let us rise”, would later be repeated by, and misattributed to, the French journalist Élisée Loustallot (d. 1790); his contemporary, the celebrated orator and leader of the Girondists, Pierre Vergniaud (subjected to show-trial and then guillotined in 1793); Russian proto-anarchist Mikhail Bakunin (d. 1876); and Big Jim Larkin, the Irish trade-unionist (d. 1947); followed by an endless succession of increasingly minor left-wing scribblers. Larkin is the most popular misattribution on the English internet, owing to his having spoken English (other kinds of people being widely, if privately, suspected by English-speakers of being merely imaginary) and to its appearance on Larkin’s Dublin memorial.
In a certain underdeveloped country, the story circulated about a prominent father who was worried that his son, propelled into a senior job in a ministry by his father’s influence, was being led into bad habits by his large salary. The father approached his friend the minister, and begged him to re-allocate his son into a more junior post. The minister expostulated: “But my dear friend, if your son is to have a junior post, he’ll have to pass exams!”
Occupants of subordinate posts are meant to do a definite job, with clear job specifications. Hence, clear, publicly checkable criteria for performance and suitability exist. If these criteria are not applied, we feel that we are in the presence of corruption. Our efficiency depends on fair selection of persons for posts, and we believe in meritocracy. But at the top? Or in choice of fundamental policies? … No Delphic oracles for small issues, where reason prevails; but for really big questions, oracle-surrogates remain in use.
Ernest Gellner, Plough, Sword and Book
The first and most important step for working people must be to change their attitude towards other working people. When we regard someone who enjoys more leverage over his or her employers than we do over our own as a spoiled, greedy parasite, rather than a model, we are engaging in fantasy. Anyone with less than $100,000 a year who imagines that he is being impoverished by, say, public sector employees’ benefits is deluding himself. The reality is that these people are people just like us, on balance no lazier, no less competent, no less well-intentioned. To imagine otherwise is to fall into the error of identifying with people whose interests do not align with our own, of imagining that by saying what rich people say we are more likely to become rich ourselves; but we will not become rich in any case. If we cannot see that higher wages for ordinary working people—even for not particularly efficient or attractive working people—is what drives job creation, growth, and social cohesion, we will continue to grow poorer, never mind rich.
This is fun, where by fun I mean humbling and worrying: Daniel Davies has put together a choose-your-own-adventure simulation of this moment in the European debt crisis. I can’t pretend to really get it, being only a slump-shouldered, glassy-eyed moron; but just working through his decision tree with different parameters helps bring the issues into sharper focus.