Why You Matter

(How To Understand Politics in Almost Any Place and Time)

“We are all different!” by Braiu is licensed under CC BY 2.0

You’re important for a lot of different reasons. You know what they are. I’m writing because I want to help you organize your reasons. It will help you understand your own worth. When you really understand your own worth, people and situations can’t manipulate it as easily. That makes life feel a bit more stable, and probably better too.

To make things simple, I’m going to divide reasons for valuing people into three categories. You may think this isn’t going to work, and you’d be right. The world is a complicated place and I can’t fit reality into three categories, but you’ll be surprised how much does fit, and how helpful they can be. Here they are.

Okay, so it’s not obvious yet, but I think I can convince you. I’m going to throw a lot of things into the third category, so if you think I left out something important, don’t worry. It probably goes there. Let me briefly explain what I mean by each category. I’ll start with the easiest one.

I can.

Duh. This is why kids say “Mom, look!” and then make you watch them do a cartwheel for the hundredth time. It’s why we try to get good grades and win at sports. It’s why we start businesses, take jobs, and earn money. Listen to people in their nineties. They’re still proud of their abilities, even if it is just the ability to walk short distances and chew solid food. This is human nature, and it’s a good thing.

People need our abilities. We should be developing them, and trying to offer the best of ourselves to the world. I think we can all agree that the more we have to offer, the more we should earn. We can fight about the details, but money as motivation isn’t the worst thing. I think we all understand that some things are worth more than money. We don’t sell our children or our beliefs. We also understand that the system isn’t perfect, and that not everyone with money got it from being really good at something. Still, money is a great way to connect someone’s needs to another person’s skills. For all its problems, if it disappeared tomorrow I would invent it again.

I am.

This is the hard category. If everyone’s important, then it feels like nobody is. You don’t get a trophy for being human, but in a good society, you do get rights. Rights are new. We just started to give most humans rights in the last few centuries, but they’ve turned out to be really important. Before we agreed that people had rights just for being human, societies had lots of bad habits. You could be killed if no one liked you. You could be enslaved. You could be prevented from an education. You could be forced to belong to a certain church, or not to have a religion. You had no say in who governed you. It was pretty nice for the rulers because they had lots of power, but it sucked for pretty much everyone else. Rights are what give us freedom.

That people deserve to be treated a certain way just because they’re people is the foundation of a good society. The problem is that even though we really like having rights, we don’t really like allowing others to have them. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could just make everyone say they agreed with you instead of having to convince them? If you were strong enough, wouldn’t it be easier to just kill your enemies than have to battle them with words or lawyers? Wherever there are people there is conflict, and free societies aren’t peaceful societies. We fight with words and with lawyers not with guns or fists, and we punish those who use violence. Maybe our way of doing things isn’t as exciting as medieval times, but there’s a lot less fear, and people are happier.

The problem with rights is that even though they are the very basis of civil society, we tend to forget they exist. They’re not hard-wired into human nature. We have to learn them as children and practice giving them to others or everything goes to pieces. If they were a force of nature, they would be gravity because they hold everything together. But gravity is much weaker than the force that makes atom bombs so powerful. The next way to make people feel special is pretty much the atom bomb of human motivation.

I belong.

I told you I was going to throw a lot in this box. I shoved love, social status, and group identity here. They fit, but the lid probably isn’t shut all the way. I never promised perfection, but these ideas are useful.

First, love. Love is awesome and we could all talk forever about it, but I want to keep this short, so forgive me for not sounding pretty. What do we mean when we tell someone “I love you.”? Essentially what we’re saying is “To me, you’re special.” When the feeling is returned a bond is formed that is painful to break. Humans are supposed to form these connections with others. These connections are the basis not only of our families, but hopefully our circle of friends too. These are the people we should feel comfortable around. It’s where we should be able to share our thoughts and feelings most freely, because we know they love us not just for who we are, but more importantly, despite who we are. Around these people we don’t have to pretend. Because we are so connected to the people we love, losing a close friend, relative, or spouse feels like losing a part of ourselves. You can’t buy friendship or family, and they motivate us more than money. We’ll do almost anything for them.

Apart from love there is a whole range of social connections we have. Hating someone is also a strong bond. Admiring or disliking are weaker, but still important. If we’re honest with ourselves, we do a million tiny things a day to impress perfect strangers. This role-playing with acquaintances and strangers is how we put our social value on display. You know what I mean. Our clothes, our choices about where we live or what car we drive, or even our decisions about who to look at and who to ignore all tell others how we expect to be treated. We’re constantly judging others, and being judged in return. It feels good to earn the respect of the people around us, and we generally hate being looked down on. There are limits to what we’ll do for social acceptance, but if we’re honest we should admit that it’s a huge influence on us. Did you comb your hair today? How long would you keep combing your hair if you were the last person on earth?

I just said we “generally” hate being looked down on. We work hard to please the people we like, but we know we can’t please everyone, so we specialize. (You didn’t comb your hair? Are you trying to attract non-conformists?) We are drawn to people who think and act like we do. If others don’t approve, it’s not the end of the world. Getting a sense of belonging from a certain group and ignoring the disapproval of others is normal. As long as all groups respect the rights of the other groups it’s not a problem, but when it does become a problem it becomes a huge problem. More on that later.

The Three Values in One Lifetime

Each of these ways of being valued has its strengths and weaknesses. Ability earns you money, but can’t buy you love. Rights give everyone value, but don’t make you feel special. Belonging makes you feel special, but doesn’t pay the bills. Ways of mattering are always overlapping. It’s complicated.

To put these values in their right places lets walk through a life.

Don’t worry kid. They only stop taking care of you for about fifty years or so. Then you get to be old like me! “old and young” by ozmafan is licensed under CC BY 2.0

First a person is conceived. Some people would say your human rights started then. Some people say later. It’s controversial. Rights are relatively new and we haven’t worked it all out yet. What we can all agree on is that babies need a very strong, loving bond with a parent figure to become emotionally healthy. Parent figures love you and take care of you. Most can manage it, but not all. If biological parents can’t handle the responsibility babies are either adopted or someone is paid to raise them. Children have a right to be raised by competent adults who make them feel special.

School is often when children first learn to interact with people who aren’t close friends or family. This is when they have to learn to respect the rights of other children. It’s not always easy. The school years are also when competition starts to become formalized. Children learn to compete for grades, for prizes, and for acceptance. Our abilities start to define our identities, and our identities start to define our social groups. Hopefully we are able to find a group of friends who will support us whether or not we are winning or losing, and we learn to connect ourselves not just with the most successful, but also with those who struggle.

After education we enter the world of work. Our family networks are mostly still there to support us, but they aren’t legally required to anymore. Unlike in childhood or old age, our basic humanness is no longer considered enough to ensure us a minimal standard of living. We have to be useful if we want to have a place to live and food to eat. Thankfully most people can find a way to earn money, and most are proud of what they do and how they do it. No one has a right to a job, but the government will help a bit if you temporarily can’t find work or have a disability. Spending forty hours a week working is not the only way we feel important. Family and friends are still our strongest motivators, though we may take up charity work, join religious organizations, or work for political causes as well. (Does cheering for a losing sports team count as charity work? I think it should.)

After work is over and our sense of usefulness diminishes, friends and family are the ones we can still count on to support us emotionally, but at this point the government is often supporting us materially. Adjusting to a life without work is hard for many. If you’ve taken pride in your career and been a provider, the transition to receiving can be difficult. As dear friends and spouses die, a sense of meaning can disappear. Dementia can rob a person of the very identity they spent a lifetime building. Accidents can have an even more traumatic effect, effectively killing the brain while leaving the body alive. This is when humans start to disagree about human rights again. If a person can no longer be useful or connect emotionally with others, does the right to live become an obligation to live? I’m going to avoid giving an answer again, because I don’t know. I think it’s complicated.

To summarize, though we are always valued for all three reasons, we feel these reasons differently at different times and around different people. In our family and chosen groups, we are valued mostly because we belong. In the workplace we are valued mostly because of our abilities. Our governments value us and we value strangers because of their human rights.

Politics

Believe it or not this part is pretty easy. All the big mistakes have already been made. They were made by overvaluing people for belonging, for being, or for their abilities. If we learn to include all three ways of valuing people in one system of government, things stay peaceful. Of course this is a huge oversimplification, but it will make sense. Let’s start from the beginning.

Government and belonging

If you base a government on belonging, people will feel loved, and love is the biggest motivator. This is how humans started out. The earliest hunter-gatherers were tribal. Your value came from how much people liked you, and maybe from how attractive, strong or useful you were. These societies were ruled by love, and even the aged or disabled had a role to play. Like a family, they were probably fiercely egalitarian. (Think of asking a mother which child she loves the most, or how we teach siblings to take turns and to share.) Most property was held in common, and slackers who didn’t pull their weight could easily be punished. It sounds ideal, and sometimes it probably was, but conformity was a must. Refusal to fit in could mean banishment, and banishment could mean death. We don’t actually know just how restrictive or violent these tribal units were, so I’m going to move on without judging them.

As civilizations grew, things got a bit more intense. We started farming and staying in one place, making us more territorial. Governments for cities and later governments for entire empires were still based on belonging and loyalty. You were ruled by one person and their family. Where you were born would decide your king, your religion, and where you would live. Your parents’ occupation would almost always determine yours. There was almost no freedom, but also almost no confusion. Life was simple, and feelings of belonging and loyalty were strong. You knew who your friends and enemies were, and it all depended on who was born where. Sometimes a neighboring group would come and conquer you, and your culture, religion, and ruler could change by force overnight. It was a simple, violent, and horrible time to be alive. I think we can all agree that large governments shouldn’t be built on love and blind loyalty.

I can’t choose my government, my religion, my opinions, or my town, but I’m willing to die for all of them! ”Battle” by jcubic is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

The pinnacle of this sort of thinking is of course the fascist movements of the 20th century. It isn’t wrong that the people in these countries loved their fellow citizens and their leader. We all love the people in our own country more than the people in a place we’ve never heard of, just as we’re more saddened by the death of a family member than we are by the death of a stranger. It’s natural, but in a family we love each other both because and despite. Fascists love their country because of its strengths, while vigorously denying any faults. Fascists believe that that their fellow citizens aren’t just special to them, but that they are special in a general way, and that other groups are less special. When the feeling of belonging is coupled with a feeling of superiority to those who don’t belong, the result is euphoria. There are always certain people who make us feel uncomfortable. Remembering to give everyone the respect they’re due as humans is hard work. When large groups of people get together so they can look down on others, the social situation gives them permission to stop doing the work of holding back their negative feelings. When we let down our guard against them, the release feels great, but it often ends in violence. WWII killed about 3% of the world’s population. It happened because Germans, Japanese, and Italians felt more special than others. They felt they had a natural right to kill and take land from the people they thought were naturally inferior. They didn’t believe others had the same rights as they did. This belief is probably the biggest mistake humans can make, and we make it often and repeatedly. We make it because as long as we’re on the winning side, it’s quite a rush.

Government and rights

The greatest accomplishment of the 20th century wasn’t the defeat of the axis powers. What took longer, and proved more difficult, was the complete rejection of their value system. When the allies won, instead of insisting that their victory meant that there was something wrong the Germans, the Italians, and the Japanese, the countries of the world gradually embraced the idea that all humans are equal. Of course this was a gradual process! The idea had been around forever, but wasn’t taken seriously until after the war. That’s when decolonization began in earnest. The UN’s declaration of human rights came in 1948. Germany started to pay reparations to Israel in 1952. The Civil Rights Movement brought freedom to the US in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Women gained more and more rights through 1960’s and 1970’s. The rejection of the idea that powerful groups had the right to dominate other groups was dying a slow and necessary death.

Throughout these years there was one country that seemed to guarantee more material rights than anywhere in the world. Of course I mean the USSR. A political, military, and scientific powerhouse, it claimed not only equal treatment for women, men, and minorities, it claimed guaranteed housing, food, a job, and a decent standard of living. Building an economic system based on maximizing rights for everyone sounds great, but it’s just a pretty idea. Unlike love, it’s not a great motivator. How did they get the system to work?

They didn’t, but they lied and said they did. Like the kingdoms of old they created personality cults around their leaders to create a sense of belonging. Like capitalist countries, they paid skilled workers more to encourage self-development. Even with those incentives in place, the system still failed because the central panning of the economy meant that many people were working to produce items that nobody really wanted. To keep the system running the government had to develop into a coercion machine, controlling vigorously what people thought and did. (For all their material promises, they didn’t believe in freedom of speech!) The system ultimately led to the starvation and imprisonment of millions. The society that seemed to give you more than all the others just for being human ended up dehumanizing everyone. It was a mistake that no one wants to repeat.

When Lenin points one way, go the other. All the fun in the USSR happened behind the government’s back. “Lenin” by LHOON is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Government and ability

This is the part where I criticize capitalism. Don’t freak out. It’s clearly better than fascism or communism, but that doesn’t mean it’s perfect, and you know it. To criticize it properly I have to go back to the past when it was relatively new and pure.

The industrial revolution changed everything. You know the story. Factories opened, and cities grew dramatically as people moved to work in them. Steam power and railroads increased productivity and allowed movement on a scale never before seen. People had a lot more freedom to make choices in their lives, and there were a lot of new ways to make money. It grew into a world of super-rich industrialists, even richer monopolists, and children working fourteen-hour days six days a week while their elderly grandparents lived in poorhouses. On top of the hunger and poverty the new crushing work schedule drove out time for friends and family. Even though a small middle class did emerge, incomes continued to become more and more unequal. A society dedicated only to making money makes a lot of money, but also a lot of misery.

Private charity instead of government transfers are a win-win! I give less, while feeling better about myself.

Thankfully that’s not the capitalism we know today. We passed child labor laws, minimum wage laws, unemployment laws, disability laws, and a whole social safety net so no one should have to go hungry. These protections are expensive, but are generally considered worth it. They kept laborers in the 1930’s from embracing the empty promises of communism, and helped build our educated and highly skilled society. For almost fifty years we kept the top tax rate over sixty percent to help fight capitalism’s structural inequality problem. The middle class didn’t just happen. It was built on purpose. Our political fights these days are generally over how much we should support the struggling members of our society who find themselves in between the more-or-less guaranteed security of childhood and old age. One party feels like we should have less security for people of working age. They fear workers will get lazy if they know they can get away with not working. The other wants more security for this group. They believe the people going hungry and living on the streets aren’t there because they lack motivation to work, but because they need help finding ways to be useful, and that programs to help them are worth the small hit to economic growth that they cost.

In short:

If you base your government only on belonging, you don’t get much freedom because everyone has to think the same things. People have to do a lot of pretending in order to fit in. It’s an inefficient system because power is given to the people who can best flatter the leader, not the people who have the most ability. Also, expect to be invading your neighboring country soon or at least torturing the disloyal within your own borders.

If you base your government only on rights, you don’t get much freedom because the rights of strangers aren’t good motivators. It’s inefficient because central planning of the economy is hard to do. Expect to be coerced into being “good”, and not to achieve your full potential. Starving to death is also a possibility.

If you base your government only on ability, then you end up with huge income inequality, monopolies, and no time for love or connection. Life will be better than under the other two systems, but expect that many won’t be able to afford basic necessities, and human potential will be wasted due to a lack of educational opportunities for poor people.

We don’t need to make these mistakes again.

American cello teacher, Kiwi farm worker, Australian tour guide, and German nurse. Hopefully my words make more sense than my biography.