10 May 2007

Countless ordinary people

I suspect Thailand has some similarities with Japanese society when it comes to a hierarchy that seems to be rapidly losing its influence. Robert Locke, writing about Japanese society, argues persuasively that 'what people are pursuing in the workplace is not so much money as the respect of the people around them…. [The Japanese] have understood that a large part of what money-seeking individuals really want is just to spend that money on purchasing social respect, through status display or whatever, so it is far more efficient to allocate respect directly.'

Rather than offer financial rewards we could perhaps reward people who help achieve societal goals with higher social status. An honours system could go some way toward rewarding people who forgo financial fortune for the good of society. Indeed, many countries have honours systems that are - or were - intended to do this. People also gain status merely by being admitted to exclusive societies, by working for a reputable organisation, or are pleased simply to be recognised in their role by cognoscenti. And many social reformers are quite happy to toil away without needing their efforts validated by any external body. They might be happier for knowing that they are helping to improve the society in which they live but, for a very large number, their reward lies simply in knowing that they are making a contribution.

But whether for good or ill, the context within which social status is barely correlated with financial status is rapidly disappearing from many rich countries: social status is becoming more and more congruent with high levels of wealth and income. The British honours system, for example, which used to compensate dedicated people for the financial sacrifices they made for the public good, is more and more following the trend, making awards to entertainers and sportspeople who, whatever their other troubles, are not financially impoverished. There are still fields of activity, in the academic and religious worlds, for instance, wherein social status and monetary reward do not always go hand-in-hand, but they are shrinking or indeed reward activities that most of us would see as anti-social. Re-instatement of a popular culture that confers high status on those who achieve social and environmental goals would be a difficult task in our highly mobile world. It would have to be an evolutionary process. But in the meantime, facing severe and urgent social and environmental challenges, what are we to do?

Rejig the incentives, so that people achieving social goals are rewarded in what is becoming the only way we know (currently) how: financially. That's where a Social Policy Bond regime comes in.

The world is being destroyed - no doubt about it - by the greed of the rich and powerful. It is also being destroyed by popular demand. There are not enough rich and powerful people to consume the whole world; for that, the rich and powerful need the help of countless ordinary people. Wendell Berry, Conservation is good work, The Amicus Journal, Winter 1992

Which is not to blame the countless ordinary people. We are, after all, reacting rationally to the incentives on offer. Change the incentives and we can save the planet.

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