Conservatives, Fairness & the Hard-work Myth at the Core of Capitalism

Imagine a friend invites you and five other friends over to help paint his living room, he promises a slice of cake he’s baked as a reward. Between you the room is finished over the course of the afternoon and the cake is brought out to be served. The question is how to you slice it? You could all be given an equal sixth slice, but two of the other only turned up two hours in, another pair was messing around writing messages to each other with the paint and you were the only one who got up on the ladder to do the hard to reach bits, surely you deserve a larger slice of the cake?

We’ve all been in situations like this, and in this example there’s no certain right or wrong answer, although usually there’s a politically correct one; the one that will satisfy the most and lead to the least bickering. What’s interesting is that according to research on moral foundations how we decide to cut the cake is influenced by (and indicative of) where you fall on the liberal-conservative spectrum. Liberals tend to see an equal proportioning of the cake to everyone regardless of their situation (or how much they painted) as fair; they are faultlessly egalitarian. Conservatives tend to see the cutting of the cake in proportion to what people deserve as fair.

It is important to note that the findings of psychology also show that liberals and conservatives care about fairness equally; despite what each might think about the other, they both place the same high importance on fairness and they will still factor it in when other moral concerns (about causing/avoiding harm, group loyalty etc) come up. (Later this was split into two moral foundations to represent this difference with conservatives being found to care more about the moral foundation Fairness/cheating which represents proportionality, liberals more about the Liberty/oppression foundation which represents equality. But note that conservatives care about Liberty/oppression when it comes to individual freedoms.)

It is also key to realise that everyone can think of fairness in either way, we’ve all been in the situation where we feel the cake should be portioned in relation to effort and where we think it should simply be cut equally. However, conservatives are more likely to be in favour on the proportional solution, liberals on the egalitarian one. Also note that neither of these positions are reached by logic or experience, they are what we feel is right, even if we might be able to rationalise why one is more just than the other.

Communism was the political system that in theory represented the liberal ideal of fairness, everyone would be equal contributors to society (or at least equally appreciated) and everyone was of equal stature. It’s well known that this failed in practice, although some would argue it was never properly carried out in practice, but this arguably is because human nature doesn’t fit with it (I’ll come back to this later).

Capitalism is now the system most nations have without competition from serious alternative systems and is built on the conservative ideal that everyone will get what they deserve in proportion to how hard they work. Again there’s nothing inherently wrong with this in theory, but it is becoming more and more clear that, like the ideals of communism, this doesn’t work in practice.

The problem is that the conservatives are so sure that hard work must lead to wealth that they automatically reverse the correlation and believe that the wealthy automatically must deserve to be rich and the poor must deserve their lot too. This is why so many believe that the wealthy must be hard workers, regardless of whether their wealth comes from inheritance, dodgy business dealings or tax avoidance, and the poor must be lazy, despite that well-established fact that being lower in a hierarchy means you will be more stressed and many on low incomers have to work longer hours and hold multiple jobs.

Does this mean capitalism is as much a failed system as communism? Yes and no.

Here the science is less well-established. In terms of human nature at least one aspect of capitalism may suit us better than communism and that is consumerism. At least one scientist argues persuasively that we are wired to adorn ourselves with our purchases to show off personality traits (which can include being a conscientious worker or compassionate believer in equality) and without that communism is doomed as workers will not put in the effort if they don’t get the reward they deserve. We need to be able to express our differences and our economic system can tap into that. However, capitalism needs to be managed, through regulation, to make sure it has rules and those rules are obeyed by everyone. If you hide how much of the cake you’ve been taking it is not fair under anyone’s definition.

– Matthew Dickinson,
The Spiritual Materialist


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