In The Consolation of Philosophy, the 5th century Greek scholar and Roman Consul Boethius wrote: “Compare the length of a moment with the period of ten thousand years; the first, however miniscule, does exist as a fraction of a second. But that number of years, or any multiple of it that you may name, cannot even be compared with a limitless extent of time, the reason being that comparisons can be drawn between finite things, but not between finite and infinite.”
Boethius’ insight into the nature of asymmetrical comparison is perennially valid, whether with respect to philosophical and theological speculation, mathematical equations involving infinities, or ideological aspects of political thought. It explains why communist, anarchist or socialist experiments in the life of peoples and nations are bound to fail, for as Boethius might have said, they do not treat of corresponding finite entities. In other words, these adventures in social perfectibility flow from the refusal to ground a vision of the future in historical and political reality.
In order to achieve the possible, it is necessary to acknowledge the real, that is, the limits set by the actual parameters of historical existence and the constraints of human nature. Otherwise we are on the way to creating a dystopian nightmare. One cannot validly compare the imperfect social and political structures of the past and present with a utopian construction that has never come to pass and which exists only in myth, dream and mere desire. No sound conclusion can emerge from such dissonant correlations. To strive, for example, to build an ideal society in which “equality of results” or “outcomes” — what is called “social justice” — is guaranteed can only produce a levelled-down caricature of human struggle and accomplishment. We have seen it happen time and again, and the consequences are never pretty.
The infatuation with “outcomes” in the sense of compelled equality persists wherever we may look, significantly in education, where equality of result is enforced under the tired mantra of “diversity and inclusion” — standards are lowered, everyone is admitted, everyone graduates, everyone gets a trophy or a degree regardless of input, so that no one gets left behind. Mastering the curriculum, however, is a highly competitive venture, meant to sieve winners from losers; we recall the word derives from the Latin for “race course.” The “equality” compulsion is especially paramount in “social justice” legislation which ensures that unmotivated non-contributors to civil order, prosperity and disciplined excellence in any field of endeavor are treated as at least equal to and often favored over successful practitioners and genuine achievers.
There is another, perhaps more clinical, way of regarding the issue, known as the Pareto Principle, deriving from the work of Italian econo-sociologist Vilfredo Pareto (1848-1923.) The “equality” or “outcomes” obsession, as Jordan Peterson has pointed out with reference to Pareto, is a noxious delusion. The Pareto Principle specifies a scalene relationship between causes and effects in human endeavor. Also known as the 80/20 Rule, the principle postulates, as a matter of discernible fact, that 80% of a nation’s wealth is typically controlled by 20% of the population. It has almost always been so. (The Pareto calculus, it should be mentioned, has nothing to do with the urban legend of the greedy “one percent.” The wealthy already contribute disproportionately in terms of employment and taxes to the social leviathan.)
In an interesting aside, Peterson acknowledges that Marx was correct in observing that capital tends to accumulate in the hands of the few. But Marx erred in considering this imbalance a flaw in the capitalist system. For such asymmetry, as Pareto and others have shown, “is a feature of every single system of production that we know of.” Disproportion is intrinsic to human life, whether we like it or not. Moreover, the Rule applies not only to economic factors but to distributions inherent in almost all productive human efforts and enterprises. The potential for human achievement is never evenly distributed. True success in any creative endeavor is invariably a function of that small band of individuals who, as Peterson says, exemplify power, competence, authority and direction in their lives. Briefly, IQ and conscientiousness are the biggest predictors of success.
Although the Rule does not enjoy the status of a Law, it is for the most part reliable. In other words, no matter how we may tamper with distributive sequences, life is simply not fair. People are born with different aptitudes and are exposed to a variant range of formative experiences, giving rise to personal “outcomes” that cannot be preordained. At the same time, the sum of such particulars group into predictable aggregates which are statistically definitive.
Distributions of wealth, as Richard Koch explains in The 80/20 Principle, are “predictably unbalanced,” but the “data relating to things other than wealth or income” can be generalized, as noted, over the broad spectrum of human activities, pursuits and behavior: time-management, distance relations, crime distributions, artistic masterpieces and innumerable other phenomena. One-hundred percent of most things amenable to statistical calculation tend to happen, speaking metaphorically, within a 20% radius, including that which we consider best in life. Out of every 100 books published, to take one instance of how the Rule tends to operate, approximately 20 will have marketable success. It is thus to our advantage, Koch continues, to determine and isolate the 20% of time and effort which are most productive; the remaining 80% turns out to be dispensable.
Elaborating on the Rule with a view to furthering proficiency, engineer Joseph Moses Juran, the father of TQM (Total Quality Management), which revolutionized habits of thought in business, manufacturing and engineering, posited his “Rule of the Vital Few” in accounting for the disparity between inputs and outputs. As Koch puts it in his summary of Juran’s thesis: “For everyone and every institution, it is possible to obtain much that is of value and avoid what is of negative value” by understanding that evolving systems are nonlinear, that “equilibrium is illusory and fleeting,” that minorities are responsible for majority payoffs, and that focusing on the 80% at the expense of the 20% in any sphere of human activity will inevitably yield negative consequences. (Needless to say, the term “minorities” in the expository context alludes not to racial or gender minorities, but to a creative minimum.)
We are clearly indebted, as Nassim Nicholas Taleb stresses, Pareto-like, in his new book Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life, to those who really do have skin in the game, who are “imbued with a sense of pride and honor,” who are “endowed with the spirit of risk taking,” and who “put their soul into something [without] leaving that stuff to someone else.” Taleb’s version of the “minority rule” is even more drastic than Pareto’s, reducing the 20% to “3 or 4 percent of the total population.” They are the “heroes” on whom the good of society depends.
This is another way of saying that we must invest in amortizing excellence by acknowledging our benefactors and by focusing on principles inherent in all distributions of effort, expense, and investment. It follows that success is possible only if we trade in what is actually there to work with, whether in the mind or in the world. You cannot bank on fiat currency, so to speak. And this is true of all personal, technical, scientific, professional and social projects.
Here is where Boethius and Pareto meet. In the political domain utopian theory proposes a radical transformation of society purportedly in the interests of the 80% who produce little with respect to innovation, personal risk, entrepreneurial investment of time and resources, scientific breakthroughs and intellectual advancement. And it does so at the expense of the 20% who are the engines of real prosperity, creative accomplishment and the expansion of the frontiers of knowledge. Its modus operandi is to compare what has never been observed except in literary fables and theoretical assumptions with the millennia of actual social practice and the gradual success of what Karl Popper in The Open Society and Its Enemies called “piecemeal social engineering.” The grand collectivist program is unable to bridge the gap between the there and the not-there, faltering on incommensurables.
In short, socialism in all its forms is doomed to fail because it cannot comprehend that we live within the realm of the finite, as Boethius reminds us, and that excellence is rare, as Pareto and his followers persuasively re-affirm. When the twinned elements of finitude and acumen go unrecognized, mediocrity and failure ensue ineluctably. Individual talent, dedication to one’s work in the world in which we actually live, and intelligence in every department of life are qualities that must be preserved and promoted for their human uniqueness as well as for the benefit of the many. The end result of the veneration of purely notional and immaterial constructs together with the collective fetish of forced equality is, as history has repeatedly proven, economic stagnation, human misery and eventual collapse.
It may sound heartless, but the triumph of the unqualified spells the end of a nation’s — indeed, of a civilization’s — historical term. In the real world of ability and performance, skill and attainment, the race is always to the swift and Achilles will always outpace the tortoise — Ecclesiastes, Aesop and social egalitarians notwithstanding. To rig the race for the advantage of the slow would defeat its purpose, leading to social stasis, personal ennui and lack of meaningful production across the entire sweep of human initiative. If this were the case, there would be no race.