The Privilege Program
Why do the rich and powerful fail so abysmally to keep the world in better shape? The issue is not as clear cut as it might seem. Research shows that the reaction of the rich and favoured is standard human psychology. In other words, if we were in their shoes, the chances are we would do much the same. It is part of our standard human makeup that winners, even of meaningless board games, feel entitled. As Sarah Newcomb explains in Loaded, this is not a conscious choice. A series of experiments have shown that everyone does this and does it quite unconsciously. As she describes, the researchers had people play rigged games of chance, such as Monopoly and simpler games, which gave one person a huge chance of winning. But even when everyone knew the game was rigged, the winners invariably had the sense they ought to have won. So this is the product of standard human neural wiring. We are all like this. We all have unconscious motivations of tremendous strength and power that cause us to see the world in way that makes oneself OK.
The problem is, the greater the win, the bigger the superior position, the more sense of entitlement. Winners can feel so entitled to their gains that they consider luck had nothing to do with it. They are better people, better humans, helping others along with their success, others who so routinely seem to fail to comprehend the situation. From elsewhere it is clear this is just spin, self-congratulatory reframing. But before we move on it may be helpful to note that the wealthy and powerful who appear so manifestly not to grasp the situation realistically are operating off their own, different, rational basis. As Newcomb writes:
We all want to believe the world is fair. We are all looking for meaning in the complex and sometimes chaotic world around us, and when we are the beneficiary of privilege due to chance or a fluke of history, we have a few ways to interpret our situation. We can chalk it all up to random chance, in which case we might be forced to wrestle with feelings of guilt (because equally deserving others do not have the same privileges) or anxiety (because we may become a target for theft, cons, or violence). Second, we can decide that the system is unfair, and face the feelings of guilt and anxiety that accompany being the beneficiary of an unfair advantage. Last, we can decide that the system is fundamentally fair, meaning that somehow we must be deserving of that privilege. That way we can enjoy our situation and not have to feel guilty or anxious.
This is the self-defence mechanism that runs in every person, the ‘privilege program’. The result, however, in our modern world is catastrophic. It means the rich do not care about the poor because they cannot. It would be too big a sacrifice; and it is vital to note that the sacrifice is psychological, a diminishing of their own value and worth, and not financial. The money is a game played in a desperate defence of self esteem, with no winning position in sight.
It is the combination of this dynamic with the increased atomisation of modern culture that is toxic and dangerous to all, including the human race as a whole. In ordinary situations our friends will usually let us know if we start getting toxic. But with the current levels of inequality individuals with huge power and influence become cut off from exactly the kind of natural compensations that keep us a functioning part of society. They are isolated because they need to be told what they expect to hear, and, like all-powerful kings of old, they are. This is a huge problem not only for our hope of a humanitarian culture but also for the individuals themselves. The lack of connection with the results of actions leaves them adrift in the strange attractors of the unplanned implications of their actions; and the situation is always heading toward instability. You are always fighting loss, the natural entropy of what you have accumulated and what you have done. And in the Moravec jump to the next lifetime, there are no privileged positions. As described in Quantum Karma it could be a heaven of plenty and ease, or the opposite. One arrives in the world one defines, but random chance gives you millions to one against being privileged in the next lifetime. Rather, the position in the next world may embody one’s ultimate worst fears. This is where the implications get scary. The dice are thrown afresh with each transition to a new lifetime.
From the point of view of the culture at large this situation is obviously unacceptable. The impact on humanity at large becomes ever more threatening to the very survival of the race. It would appear that in order to counteract the disastrous effects of our standard mammalian psychology we have to discount the privilege program somehow. The answer, hopefully, is a full appreciation of interactive destiny.