My students’ U-turn on sharing the wealth

(’76 Contributor) As part of my research into the intellectual proximity of Ayn Rand’s objectivism and social conservatism, I have spent stimulating time perusing Rand’s novels and other philosophical writings and recently came across a passage that gave me an idea for a classroom thought experiment.

The excerpt I am referring to is from a 1973 short essay called “An Untitled Letter” published in Philosophy: Who Needs It. In the Letter, Rand reflects on a proposal made by Jan Tinbergen, a Dutch economist who was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics in 1969.

Taking part in an international conference in New York City shortly afterwards, Tinbergen is reported to have advocated “a tax on personal capability”, adding that “a modest first step might be a special tax on persons with high academic scores”.

Teaching at a reputable institution of higher learning here in France, I thought I would try that line of reasoning on some of my students. The objective was to ascertain to what extent their thinking was coherent and logical, and how much intellectual room there might be for a little straightening out one way or another if required.

Adapting from Jan Tinbergen’s proposal, I first put up on the board the following statement: “Students who systematically get top grades at school should be made to give away a few points to help those who do not do so well.” I hasten to indicate that French grades do not come in letters from A to F but in scores out of 20 points. Students getting top grades typically score in the 16 to 20 points range.

The initial reaction to the statement was quietly incredulous and offended. Urged to react more explicitly, most of the students expressed concern that such an idea, if actually implemented, would necessarily undermine the work ethic and promote free-loading, with disastrous effects on morale, personal flourishing, student cohesion, and the credibility of résumés.

Other students did not dismiss the proposal out of hand but insisted on creating a system that would allocate the extra points based on what was vaguely called “merit”, ultimately taken to mean “commitment” or “dedication” as objectively measured among potential recipients by a special board of teachers and school administrators. It sounded like some variant of workfare with an unmistakable hint of bureaucratic involvement. By and large, though, a consensus materialized against the adoption of the tax proposal. The points-redistribution scheme was logically voted down 11 to 1 with 5 abstentions.

The second part of the experiment is where things got even more intriguing. I duplicated the first statement on the board, only substituting “make a lot of money” for “get top grades”. The concept was basically the same, this time taking on the guise of wealth redistribution. A complete 180 ensued! What in the first instance had been a somewhat spirited defence of hard work and achievement metastasized into class-warfare rhetoric and an indictment of the wealthy for being chronically selfish and rigging the game. When taken to a vote, the second motion passed 11 to 2 with 4 abstentions.

The bottom line of all this is that faced with reality, in their case the necessity of getting good grades to pass exams, the students upheld justice classically defined as “to each his own”, the nemesis of liberal social justice. The disconnect came when all the prejudices against wealth creation and success that have been hammered into them for years surfaced to warp their judgment into incoherent defence of what they had conceptually rejected in the first place. The same sort of discrepancy may well be true of other segments of society.

The challenge for proponents of limited government and individual responsibility is therefore to find a philosophically-foolproof cure for a conceptual schizophrenia that ultimately disables youthful potential and atrophies an entire nation. The challenge is all the harder to take up as, to paraphrase conservative comedian Evan Sayet’s recent lament, even objectivity has become an act of bigotry.

At any rate, the whole thing certainly calls for determination and incremental pushback for clear thinking to stick. Based on my little anecdotal experiment, a good start might be careful study of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde before moving on, perhaps, to material like Howard Roark’s speech when he addresses the jury during his trial in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead.
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Paoli is the nom de plume of a conservative political scientist who did graduate work in Colorado before taking up an academic post in his native France.

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