A funny thing I’ve noticed about some of my friends: They are for the most part successful, high-income people with happy families and rewarding jobs, and they have enjoyed if not all the best that America has to offer then much of it: good-to-elite educations often paid for by someone else, social and cultural opportunities, travel, leisure, security. A few of them already are semi-retired in their late 40s. They are almost without exception in the top 10 percent when it comes to incomes, and many of them earn at even more rarefied levels.
But, strangely, many of them feel uniquely put-upon.
They believe their stories to be stories of hardship overcome. If they were poor families (as I was), then they feel that this presented them with a practically Dickensian disability; if they were from well-off families, then it is something else: They belong to a minority group, or they felt like outsiders for some other reason, felt like they didn’t fit in in high school, had a bad relationship or marriage early in life, an alcoholic parent, that sort of thing. A few of my close friends growing up really did have heavy personal burdens, e.g., having arrived on these shores as a wartime refugee from Vietnam, speaking not a word of English. But most of us — myself included — had it pretty easy.
My impression is that what’s at work in those stories is a kind of moral greed. It isn’t enough that we get to enjoy the best of (almost) everything that money can buy or that social status can confer — we also desire the moral pleasure that comes from feeling that we have earned these things in a special, personal way, that we overcame great barriers to achieve them. People lost their minds over the racial aspects of The Bell Curve, but what is really socially disruptive about Charles Murray’s thesis in that book is that there isn’t really any meritocracy — if the most important life outcomes are conditioned on an immutable and largely hereditary gift that cannot be acquired through hard work and dedication, then you have an intellectual caste system, not a meritocracy. I think that is much more the case than most of us who have benefited from that arrangement would like to admit.
I suppose it is natural to believe that you had it especially hard and that everybody else had an easier time of it than you did. We experience our own hardships much more intensely than we experience those of other people, including people we care about. (“Empathy” is a literary device.) And envy comes to us more easily than does sympathy.
I think there is a national version of that, too. Earlier today, I was listening to a discussion about China and globalization from the Chinese perspective. Americans who are dissatisfied with what we call for lack of a better term “globalization” tend to assume that the Chinese are very satisfied with it. They aren’t. Americans see certain kinds of work moving to China (or to other foreign countries) and feel like we are being put upon by wily competitors “stealing our jobs.” But Beijing’s view of China’s relationship with Apple, to take one example, is that China imports some wages but exports most of the profits, and that this is a raw deal. (Beijing’s push to “localize” multinationals is partly a reaction to this, as well as a manifestation of the Chinese regime’s desire to put business under more rigorous political discipline.) They don’t want to be a low-wage country where people do rote assembly work; they want to be the country that the profit comes home to. We are the country where the profits accrue, and we feel cheated because of the loss of relatively low-wage factory jobs.
Like teenagers, rich Western countries behave as though our problems are the only problems, as though nobody else is going through anything. The junta in Beijing may very well be the worst government on earth, but it still behooves us to try to understand its thinking, because that understanding serves our interests. At least, it serves our interests properly understood — I am less and less confident that anybody in Washington can see reality clearly enough to begin to comprehend those interests, much less to pursue them with enlightenment and intelligence.