How Do the Economic Elites Get the Idea That They 'Deserve' More?
The natural tendency toward discrimination and inequality
How Do the Economic Elites Get the Idea That They 'Deserve' More?
By Yanis Varoufakis /

The ‘haves’ of the world are always convinced that they deserve their wealth. That their gargantuan income reflects their ingenuity, ‘human capital’, the risks they (or their parents) took, their work ethic, their acumen, their application, their good luck even. The economists (especially members of the so-called Chicago School. e.g. Gary Becker) aid and abet the self-serving beliefs of the powerful by arguing that arbitrary discrimination in the distribution of wealth and social roles cannot survive for long the pressures of competition (i.e. that, sooner or later, people will be rewarded in proportion to their contribution to society). Most of the rest of us suspect that this is plainly false. That the distribution of power and wealth can be, and usually is, highly arbitrary and independent of ‘marginal productivity’, ‘risk taking’ or, indeed, any personal characteristic of those who rise to the top.

In this post I present a body of experimental work that argues the latter point: Arbitrary distributions of roles and wealth are not only sustainable in competitive environments but, indeed, they are unavoidable until and unless there are political interventions to keep them in check.

The laboratory experiment central to this post took place some time ago and involved 640 volunteers. It revealed that rigid hierarchies might emerge even among people who are, to all intents and purposes, identical. Of course, discrimination cannot emerge unless there is at least some distinguishing feature (e.g. some are ‘left-hookers’ or have green eyes, some are men while others are women). So, to test the hypothesis that systematic discrimination can emerge when subjects seem identical to each other, the experimental design made it impossible for one participant to discern anything other than a wholly arbitrary feature of the ‘other’; a feature that is commonly known to be uncorrelated to the character, application, intelligence, motivation or ability of the person involved. What feature? We simply assigned, at random, the colour Blue to half our subjects and the colour Red to the other half. Could such an arbitrary colour assignment seed stable conventions that discriminated terribly between the Reds and the Blues; i.e. people that were, otherwise, indistinguishable (and who knew that the colour assignments were random and, therefore, meaningless)? The answer is, contrary to anything economic theory can explain, a resounding ‘yes’. (Click here for the academic paper, published in The Economic Journal, reporting on this experiment and here for a longer chapter on the same topic, published recently in this book.)

What does this all mean? What lesson can we learn, from these laboratory experiments, about our societies? Are there insights here that can be of help to political activists and civil rights organisations struggling against systematic discrimination? Below, I (YV) offer a brief summary of the empirical findings and answer questions posed by Nick Hadjigeorge (NH) concerning the political significance of these issues for civil rights activists.

INSIGHTS FROM THE LAB – in six points

  1. Experimental evidence shows that large-scale arbitrary discrimination can be sustainable on the basis of some distinguishing feature that everyone knows is independent of personal character, skill, aggression, IQ, temperament etc. If we can reproduce rigid patterns of discrimination within an hour, in a laboratory, then feminists, anti-racists  and critics of the vast inequalities between social classes have powerful evidence that it is perfectly possible for societies to distribute the good social roles (and the wealth emanating from these) independently of the personal virtues powerful white men invoke to justify their riches and power.
  2. Given their evolutionary stability, the patterns of discrimination become institutionalized in human societies because people begin to believe that they deserve what they are getting or not getting (as part of the distribution that results from the evolved discriminatory conventions). The ideology of entitlements, in others words, follows on the coattails of arbitrary distributions of social roles and income.
  3. Members of  advantaged and disadvantaged groups behave differently based on this dynamic, expect the ‘other’ group to behave differently and, importantly, allow their ‘expectations’ to become more than predictions: to become ethical expectations (e.g. the advantaged tend to believe that it is right that they should be getting more than the disadvantaged and vice versa).
  4. Advantaged people engage more in hostile behaviour toward one another, and they feel entitled to their winnings.
  5. Disadvantaged members learned to expect less and to develop a greater capacity to act collectively and cooperatively against the logic of free-riding. As a result, even though this is not necessarily what motivates them, they manage to recoup some of the losses from being disadvantaged (in their dealings with the advantaged group) by managing to cooperate with one another.
  6. The explanation of how real power evolves, and what makes it sustainable, is to be found in the mind, and the beliefs, of the majority of the disadvantaged who succumb to the  ideological belief that they are entitled to less than the advantaged.

Read the rest of the article via

4.3 ·
What's Next
Trending Today
Noam Chomsky Has 'Never Seen Anything Like This'
Chris Hedges · 33,553 views today · Noam Chomsky is America’s greatest intellectual. His massive body of work, which includes nearly 100 books, has for decades deflated and exposed the lies of the power elite...
For Those Who Don't Want to Vote for the Lesser of Two Evils
Peter White · 13,519 views today · Ranked-choice voting is catching on, and Maine might become the first state to help citizens vote for candidates they actually want.
10 Quotes From an Oglala Lakota Chief That Will Make You Question Everything About Our Society
Wisdom Pills · 13,369 views today · Luther Standing Bear was an Oglala Lakota Sioux Chief who, among a few rare others such as Charles Eastman, Black Elk and Gertrude Bonnin occupied the rift between the way of...
HyperNormalisation (2016)
161 min · 11,002 views today · We live in a time of great uncertainty and confusion. Events keep happening that seem inexplicable and out of control. Donald Trump, Brexit, the War in Syria, the endless...
Your Lifestyle Has Already Been Designed (The Real Reason For The Forty-Hour Workweek)
David Cain · 8,762 views today · Well I’m in the working world again. I’ve found myself a well-paying gig in the engineering industry, and life finally feels like it’s returning to normal after my nine months...
Anarchists - What We Stand For
unknown · 8,639 views today · Anarchism : The word “anarchy” comes from Greek and means “no rulers”. As a political philosophy, anarchism is based on the idea that organization does not require rulers—that...
Donald and Hobbes Is Genius
Various · 5,340 views today · Some clever folk have been replacing precocious 6-year-old Calvin, from the Calvin and Hobbes comic strips, with Donald Trump and the results are, well, take a look...
Our Obsession With 'Good Immigrants' Breeds Intolerance
2 min · 5,018 views today · Society sets the bar so high to become a 'good immigrant', argues writer Nikesh Shukla, that normal immigrants are demonised. He says non-Brits in the public eye have a simple...
The Important Difference Between Love and Being Loved
2 min · 1,979 views today · We talk of love as if it were just one thing: in fact, it’s two very different moves, Loving and Being Loved. You start to grow up when you stop focusing on the latter and get...
Introversion Is Not a Personality Fail
Cat Elz · 1,940 views today · A few years ago, I got into an argument with my now mother-in-law over my supposedly “backwards” ways. My transgression? I did not attend a party of my now husband’s (then...
Today I Rise: This Beautiful Short Film Is Like a Love Poem For Your Heart and Soul
4 min · 1,909 views today · "The world is missing what I am ready to give: My Wisdom, My Sweetness, My Love and My hunger for Peace." "Where are you? Where are you, little girl with broken wings but full...
Bird Watching on Lesvos Island - A Poetic Call to Stand With Refugees
3 min · 1,903 views today · Born in Darfur, Sudan and raised in Philadelphia, Emi Mahmoud is the 2015 World Poetry Slam Champion and the Women of the World co-Champion of 2016. From a young age Emi...
The Untold History of Palestine & Israel
22 min · 1,885 views today · Previewing Abby Martin’s on-the-ground investigation in Palestine, The Empire Files looks at the long history of Zionist colonization, expansion and expulsion of Palestine’s...
My Cuba - An Intimate Look at the Pleasures and Struggles of 6 Different People's Cuba
150 min · 1,719 views today · Cuba - diverse, vibrant and complex - is undergoing immense change. But what does it mean to be Cuban in this time of change? Six people. Six films. From the comedy and ballet...
Planet Earth II Could Be Best Nature Doc Ever Made
3 min · 1,511 views today · 10 years ago Planet Earth changed our view of the world. Now we take you closer than ever before. This is life in all its wonder. This is Planet Earth II. A decade ago, the...
Alliance of 600,000 British Doctors Calls for 'Imperative' Coal Phase-Out
Nadia Prupis · 1,231 views today · Doing so would constitute 'double win for tackling the twin health threats of air pollution and climate change,' report states
What Makes Call-Out Culture So Toxic
Asam Ahmad · 971 views today · Call-out culture refers to the tendency among progressives, radicals, activists, and community organizers to publicly name instances or patterns of oppressive behaviour and...
World's Low-Cost Economy Built on the Backs of 46 Million Modern Day Slaves
Deirdre Fulton · 938 views today · 'Business leaders who refuse to look into the realities of their own supply chains are misguided and irresponsible.'
Are You Lost in the World Like Me?
3 min · 871 views today · Animated film by Steve Cutts for 'Are You Lost In The World Like Me?', taken from These Systems Are Failing- the debut album from Moby & The Void Pacific Choir. 
Donald Trump Is the Mirror and Hillary Clinton Is the Mask
Chris Agnos · 869 views today · Disclaimer: I do not support Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton for president. I think the scope of the political debate is far too narrow for the kinds of actions that need to...
Load More
Like us on Facebook?
How Do the Economic Elites Get the Idea That They 'Deserve' More?