Book report: “Resentment Against Achievement” by Robert Sheaffer

Reading this book helped me gain some perspective on some aspects of western society that have always bothered me, namely the seeming antagonism between the rich and the poor, the ambitious and the lazy and the smart and the stupid, the nature of public education, and the tradeoff between government theft (“taxes”) and the need for economic safety nets for individuals.

Despite its narrow focus, there’s too much meat in this book for me to summarize and I’m not sure I could do it justice.  I really recommend reading it if you are bothered by anti-intellectual or anti-progress attitudes.  I’ll cover a few of the main threads with some quotes I appreciated.

Sheaffer ties together several self-defeating societal problems and reminds us that they have defeated societies before.  The French Revolution was one example, and he makes the case that the Roman Empire fell because the emerging Christian cult (which was very different then than it is now, not that that excuses the present incarnation) weakened it by changing many of its highest achievers into anti-achievers.

One problem is education, and the way our public educational system is weakened by its mandate to treat everyone identically.   Achieving success is usually fairly easy for those well-educated in a well-chosen profession.  But for many – especially the lower classes – getting a good education is not easy.  Youth who value things like “being cool” over being accomplished are allowed to disrupt the education of those children who actually would like to be someone, through bullying, disrupting classes, promotion of their failure-oriented values and lowering of testing standards so “no child is left behind” despite the fact they should be.  Anyone familiar with the classic struggle of nerd versus jock will understand this.  As a result of frustration or trying to comply with these pressures, children who might otherwise be someone become failures and often adopt the pro-failure resentful attitude that caused the problem in the first place, and may pass it on to the next generation.

… we cannot claim to love our culture, our accomplishments, our arts and sciences, or any of civilization’s fine achievements when we say it is as acceptable for students to fail as it is for them to succeed.  No, we must admit that it is better to succeed than to fail, or else it is a waste of time and effort to even try to educate anyone.  Having admitted this, we must conclude that we are right to accord special honor and recognition to those who have disciplined themselves to succeed.  We must likewise admit that those who succeed in education are for the most part justified in their expectation of enjoying greater economic rewards than those who do not; for if all must be equal, then why should anyone ever strive to succeed?  And if no one strives to succeed, then what becomes of civilization?

In another section, he goes on at length about how socialism and Christianity are counter-productive ideologies in that they are both designed to prevent people from achieving anything.

The notion that people are themselves in any way responsible for their own well-being, or lack thereof, is poisonous to Christian and socialist values alike; for once we admit that the affluent have earned their wealth, we have no justification for envy of them.  Therefore, the resentful must pretend that there was no choice, that they are not themselves to blame for their own failures.

Like an entirely Christian society, an entirely Marxist society is in open conflict with reality.  For reasons of doctrine, it must be in perpetual war against achievement because the fruit of achievement is wealth, and wealth is equated with sin.  Nonetheless, in order for that society to survive and remain to some degree competitive with the more humane and rational societies of the world, achievement must be encouraged.

He also gives an example of how deeply and subtly integrated resentment is in our society:  There are African-American studies and women’s studies programs in universities.  Both are historically oppressed groups with justified grounds for resentment.  But there are no white-people studies or men’s studies programs.  Why this lack of equality?  Not because there is nothing of value to be studied, but because the resentful forbid it.  They do not want equality, they want revenge.  And what gets studied in these existing programs?  Why, that history of oppression of course, which serves to nurse that resentment across more generations.  That in itself is a kind of revenge.

On taxation and welfare:

When something is taxed, you get less of it; and when something is subsidized, you get more of it.  Presently, we place a heavy tax on achievement but subsidize the resentful, who reject the need for learning and the discipline of work.  This causes a decrease in achievement and an increase in resentment, in proportion to the size of the income transfer.  It is not difficult to see how to diminish resentment to very low levels:  Simply stop giving free lunches to angry failures.

He also discusses the mechanisms of guilt and continual browbeating that the resentful use to try to keep achievers under their thumb.  This is the sort of thing that leads to lowered educational standards, overshot political correctness and tolerance for handouts to people because of who they are, not because of any actual need for it.

What can we do about all this?  Private education.  Continued reward for accomplishment.  Lessened reward for failure, hopefully without cutting off motivated folks who need help.  Work to change our own attitudes, and by doing so influence the attitudes of others.

As achievers quicken their pace, assisted by marvelous future inventions that today [1988] are not yet even conceived, those who sit and wallow in resentment will be left farther and farther behind.  Inevitably, a tremendous roar will go up, hollering that the rapid progress of technology must stop, and that the resentful must be respectfully carried along on achievers’ shoulders.  When we hear this ferocious roaring, we must not bow down before it as if it were a lofty moral statement, for it is mere flatulence.  Let us instead greet it with contempt and even dare to laugh courageous laughter, taunting those roaring with rage to get up out of the mud and try to run alongside us.  If they try to, but stumble, let us compassionately hold out our hand to catch them and help them try to become runners like us.  But should they curse us for our speed as we run by, let us give them no further thought, leaving them to fend for themselves without our handouts.  They will tire of that very soon.

My opinion of Sheaffer’s overall message varies from day to day.  Some days I think of the fantastic continued growth of science and technology and think he’s being a bit pessimistic about the ability of any disenfranchised group to bring that down.  Other days (days when I pay attention to news) I get annoyed and depressed at watching the forces of active, hostile ignorance try to erode that progress (usually while enjoying the benefits of it) and I think he may be right.

Sheaffer also helped me debug some traces of resentful thinking in myself.  Although I don’t recall my family ever expressing the attitudes Sheaffer calls “resentful”, somewhere along the way I did pick up a general mistrust for the wealthy and powerful, and an assumption that great wealth is unearned.  While that is true in many visible situations in our society, it is also true that great wealth can be earned and success generally comes with effort.

The book also helped me start to solidify my uncertain position on taxation and social programs (well, that and now being employed and seeing half my pay forcibly taken by the government).  Before you ask, no, I don’t have any answers.  But I do know I’m less satisfied with our current solutions than I used to be.

It’s not a long book.  Go read it.

Some things I love about the prairies

You don’t feel boxed in by the mountains.

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You can see what the weather is like fifty miles away (and therefore what it’s going to be like for you later on).

You can enjoy a violent thunderstorm without necessarily having to be in it.

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And you occasionally get some soothing desktop wallpaper out of the deal:

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Driving up a mountain

On my recent road trip to Alberta, I stopped for the night in Sicamous. There’s a forest service road that starts right in town and goes up to the top of nearby Mount Quest. It’s an easy way to get a nice view, so I thought I’d mention it – stop by if you can. Not recommended for low-riding cars though; there are some spots with deep ruts.

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Here’s the view from the top, stitched with the software that came with my new camera since AutoStitch can’t handle large images. That’s the town of Sicamous on the left. The wood in the foreground is of unknown purpose, but I gather hang-gliders use it as a lanuching point.

Here’s where I took the picture from, as seen from the town:

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On the way down, I noticed some land for sale signs down the other branches of the logging road. It’s a flat-topped mountain, so it makes sense they could develop up there, but it makes me sad to think of the mountains getting encrusted with the same butt-ugly cookie-cutter housing developments that most cities and large towns are getting these days.

Here’s the GPS log of this side trip, so you can find the road: Mount_Quest