Part The Fifth

Exceptionalism--apples and oranges--the problems of education--everyone equal--people need help

"Conservatives believe in exceptionalism because they do not believe in perfect equality. Conservatives realize that some people inevitably have superior abilities, intelligence, and talents, and they believe that those people have a fundamental right to use and profit from their natural gifts." Thus the wise words of [info]earth_wizard, who would like it known that he isn't a conservative himself, he's just read a lot of books about them.

That people have different abilities, intelligence and talents is an undeniable fact. That people have a fundamental right to use and profit from their natural gifts is a principle with which few would disagree. That this has anything to do with social equality is simply not true.

Let's look at the proof. I can write, compose music and draw reasonable if somewhat cartoony pictures. Has the government ever bothered to find this out? It has not. It does not know anything about my skills, intelligence or talents. Therefore, they make no difference to the way I am regarded under the law. And this is perfectly right and proper. So, exceptionalism is irrelevant as regards social status.

Suppose it wasn't? J T McIntosh wrote a novel (World Out Of Mind) about a society in which people's abilities were tested and the appropriate status awarded according to a system of colours and shapes, starting, I believe, with Purple Circle and ending at the top with White Star. I really should re-read it; it's been a while. I don't think he approved of that society, and I know I don't. I don't want to be socially superior to someone who can't write as well as me, any more than I want to be socially inferior to someone who's better at the long jump. Talents, abilities and skills are in many ways their own reward; if anything, if social status were to be made dependent on ability in any way, I would say lack of ability should be compensated rather than penalised...but I think it's far better to keep the two things entirely separate.

There is of course one field in which ability reliably confers greater status, and that is the field of making money. Increased wealth, which confers power by its nature, also makes you a person to be reckoned with among people with whom you will never have financial dealings. It raises you in the social hierarchy, allows you to acquire influence and make connections, and again your status increases. It is one of the very few gateways to political office. So, yes, in this one very narrow and rather shabby sense, it is possible to profit socially from one's natural gifts, if they happen to run in the direction of accumulating cash. If they don't, then for most of us that's just too bad.

But what about the educational process? What about the qualifications you can get, that enable you to secure better-paid jobs and become a respected member of the community?

Well, for a start, education has very little to do with one's natural abilities and (these days) much more to do with shoving one into a job-shaped hole. For another thing, better-paid jobs are getting scarcer and more specialised, and more and more entry-level jobs are being dumbed down so that bosses can pay school leavers minimum wage to do them, as the proliferation of call centres goes to show. For a third, the supposed upward mobility that a good education gives you only goes so far, and that's not very. It isn't the way things should be...but it's the way the world has gone.

I'd like to see talent and ability recognised, fostered, developed and rewarded, certainly...but that should come after, and be entirely separate from, the acknowledgment that everyone, whatever their differences may be, from the president or prime minister right down to the poorest homeless person's daughter, is regarded as completely equal under the law, with the same rights and the same responsibilities. That no matter how skilled, how talented, how rich or how well-connected you are, you are subject to the law and will be punished if you break it. That no matter how poor, how weak, how insignificant or how disabled you are, you are entitled to the law's protection and to whatever support may be available for you.

Exceptionalism has nothing to do with democracy.

One commenter to this post pointed out that I missed the point in quite a lot of the aforegoing: it isn't that conservatives believe the government should reward exceptional people, but that they believe exceptional people should be allowed to rise to the level of their abilities and not expected to have to give of their substance to help people who aren't as exceptional. I can only plead exhaustion in my defence.

And this is where we deal with a point that has cropped up once or twice but hasn't yet been formally addressed; the complaint of conservatives that making virtue a legal requirement makes it less of a virtue, that *having* to help people takes away the option of *choosing* to help people.

To which I say a resounding So what?

The reality here is that people need help. The poor are with us always, the sick, the old, the abused, the ones who can't find or hold down jobs. The ones who have been left behind by the exceptional. Those who defend the right to choose to help are defending the right to choose not to help, on the grounds that when they choose to help (and the people who make this argument generally do) it is in some indefinable way better.

Well. If you believe in God, if you are a Christian, then that argument may have some merit. God, as we understand Him, would look more kindly on the person who chose to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and so on, than He doubtless would on someone who did it because he or she had to. So, if you are concerned about your place in heaven among the elect, then yes, I can see your problem. Pity about that. If you don't believe in God, of course, then all you are saying is that helping people because you have to is less fun for you, doesn't give you that righteous glow. And again I say, Pity about that.

Because the need is real, and constant. "Virtue" is an abstraction. If you want to feel virtuous, you can always choose to give *more* than you're required to. Volunteer for something. Grab a blanket and stand a post. Help someone who isn't covered. If you are required to go one mile, go two. But if you want to feel virtuous about doing *anything at all*, then sorry, doesn't work that way.

Exceptional people have a right to profit from their gifts. I believe they also have a duty to share those profits with those who desperately need help. Leaving it to individual discretion is a nice idea, but it just doesn't get the results. One prominent businessman over here has left the bank he drove to ruin clutching a pension fund amounting to over eight and a quarter million pounds. I assume that makes him an exceptional person in some way or other. Now he might choose to give a portion of that to support the people who have been ruined by this financial crisis, but I'd bet money, if I had any, that he won't. This is where we liberals show *our* suspicion of human nature, a suspicion which history largely bears out. The multitude in need of help can't afford to depend on those few individuals whose exceptionality runs to compassion and generosity. There simply aren't enough of them to counterbalance the ones whose exceptionality consists of grabbing all the money in sight and sitting on it. If it takes a law to make them cough up, then a law is what we need; and the more people who can be made to pay, the less money is needed from each.

Real hardship trumps virtuous feelings every time. Government, properly organised and funded, can be the best possible provider of help to people who need it, because it doesn't have to make a profit from doing it, and because, backed by law, it can take more from those who have more to give, and less from those who have less to give. If the ones who have more have got it by being exceptional--by having talents, abilities and skills (which were once referred to as "virtues") above the norm, and by exercising those talents and so on--well, good for them. They have their reward.