Posted by: J.V. | December 30, 2010

Sam Harris: A New Year’s Resolution for the Rich

I have mixed feelings about Sam Harris’ text on Huffington Post. On one hand, it’s good that there is at least one wealthy person out there who is able to question the disgusting social inequalities that exist in North American society. On the other hand, he overrelies on financial contributions as a way to fix these inequalities.

Harris rightly questions the North American (he says American but I’m extending it north of the border) idea of meritocracy, or the idea that wealthy people are wealthy because they deserve it:

To make matters more difficult, Americans have made a religious fetish of something called “self-reliance.” Most seem to think that while a person may not be responsible for the opportunities he gets in life, each is entirely responsible for what he makes of these opportunities.

He then points out that, although many wealthy people achieved their status because of hard work, most of them were able to do the hard work that got them there because of circumstances that they had no control over:

Consider the biography of any “self-made” American, from Benjamin Franklin on down, and you will find that his success was entirely dependent on background conditions that he did not make, and of which he was a mere beneficiary. There is not a person on earth who chose his genome, or the country of his birth, or the political and economic conditions that prevailed at moments crucial to his progress.

So far, so good. Where it gets sticky for me is the implication, as I read it, that a person’s “intelligence, range of talents, or ability to do productive work” is a result of something “natural”:

Consequently, no one is responsible for his intelligence, range of talents, or ability to do productive work. If you have struggled to make the most of what Nature gave you, you must still admit that Nature also gave you the ability and inclination to struggle. How much credit do I deserve for not having Down syndrome or any other disorder that would make my current work impossible?

My beef with this has to do with the all too old and easy explanation that some individuals are “fit” enough to be successful and some are not.  Harris is using this argument to plead with his fellow wealthy people to be considerate of those “less fit.” But this same assumption about “fitness” can too easily, and has too easily, been used as a justification for social Darwinism, or a mentality that claims that those who are not successful will eventually just fail to survive and the successful ones, successful because of Nature’s gifts, will continue to thrive and propagate our species by producing more naturally gifted people.

Also, while Harris may vaguely allude to social problems such as prejudice in his list of conditions individuals have no control over (“the country of his birth, or the political and economic conditions that prevailed at moments crucial to his progress”), he shies away from explicity factoring in major contributors to disparities in income, social privilege, educational opportunities, health and overall well-being: North America’s history of colonisation, slavery, ethnic and racial prejudice, ableism and sexism, among others.

If many Native people and People of Colour in North America have lower access to health care, safe and clean housing, education and fulfilling employment, it isn’t because there is something inherent in their genes that makes them less able to do productive work or struggle against life’s hardships. The social structure of the North American colonies (Canada and USA) privileges white people at the expense of all others in terms of social credibility, respect and all the physical requirements for well-being.

If people with Down’s Syndrome, autism and other dis/abilities have lower access to health care, safe and clean housing, education and fulfilling employment, it isn’t because they are incapable of working and struggling either. They may not always be able to do the types of work that non-dis/abled folks are able to do but prejudice along with our social definition of what is productive, what a workplace should look like and how co-workers are supposed to behave and interact are huge barriers to adequate education and employment.

If women have lower access to health care, safe and clean housing, education and fulfilling employment, it isn’t because they are incapable of working and struggling. Patriarchy is still embedded in our social and political structure and continues to benefit most men at the expense of most women when it comes to career opportunities and general social privilege.

Counter arguments to these “communist” propositions include the issue that not all white people, or not all men, or not all <insert privileged group here> have it easy. Of course not all of them do. I’m white and, yes, I’ve had to struggle against classism, sexism and other things. But my whiteness, for example, has afforded me opportunities that, all other things being equal, a person from a racialised group would not necessarily have had. Saying that some groups, in general, are privileged at the expence of others is not the same as saying that all members of the privileged group have it easy while all members of the marginalised groups have it difficult. It’s simply saying that there is a social structure in place that tends to give members of certain groups more opportunities than others and, in so doing, puts more barriers in the way of members of other groups.

So, while I’m glad that Harris is able to acknowledge that he didn’t get wealthy only because of his own hard work and struggles, and I appreciate that he’s willing to put himself out there and try to mobilise other wealthy people into contributing to a decrease in social inequalities, I think that his argument may actually do a disservice. It does not actually sensitise wealthy people to the extent of unfairness in the very process by which they, or their ancestors, got wealthy in the first place. It does not sensitise them to the nature of a system that allows them to remain wealthy while other people die from lack of adequate housing and health care. It only asks them to be charitable to those who are less “lucky” than them and their blessed genes that allowed them to work hard and overcome whatever obstacles they faced.

Also, there seems to be an underlying assumption that a simply redistribution of wealth will fix things. He does admit the “band aid” nature of this proposal by saying that even if it would only help a little, it is better than nothing. But his suggestion below implies that financial contributions from the wealthy could lead to massive social change:

what’s to stop the wealthiest Americans from sponsoring a 21st Century Renaissance? What politician would object to our immediately spending a trillion dollars on improvements in education and energy security?

Nice thought, but getting a bunch of billionaires to fork over enough cash to fix our educational system won’t change the social inequalities that made them in need of fixing.  The wealthy, powerful and privileged will remain so and some poor people might get a few perks here and there.

Try getting the wealthy, powerful and privileged to change social processes that create and maintain inequalities to start with. Try getting them to acknowledge that their wealth was gained unfairly. Are you laughing yet? Yes, it’s like getting white people en masse to recognise and acknowledge white privilege, men en masse to recognise and acknowledge male privilege, heteresexuals en masse to recognise and acknowledge heteronormativity. And THEN trying to get all these folks to do more than pay lip service to the idea of deconstructing and reconstructing.  Difficult. But it’s the only way.

Finally, I take issue with the intellectual elitism that is implied in statements like: “Let Gates and Buffett convene a team of brilliant people to lay out the priorities.” Who decides who is brilliant? Are these brilliant people to be chosen among the rich and powerful who were endowed with some “genetic” gift of intelligence and ability to struggle? How is this team to assess the real needs of the less powerful members of North American societies? Based on their own Disney versions of what it’s like to be poor?

I haven’t even mentioned here the issue of how the wealth of the wealthiest North Americans contribute to the poverty of many in other nations and how the types and levels of consumerism that we practice here (regardless of income level) are actually killing people and our very planet. But if they won’t recognise how their actions impact people who live close to them, how likely are they to recognise their impact on people as far away as South America, Africa and Asia?

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