Homo Consumericus

The nature and nurture of consumption

Communism/Socialism: “Great Idea. Wrong Species.” (E. O. Wilson)

Socialism is a wonderful system if you are a social ant.

Ants
I live in a staunchly socialist country. The Canadian ethos is built on the premise that one should repeatedly seek to redistribute rewards such that outcomes are as egalitarian as possible. The general idea is that we are a loving, caring, and generous society, and as such social justice must imply that we should assiduously strive for the equality of outcomes. Let's see how this plays out in two arenas, income tax and the distribution of teaching loads in universities (obviously two topics of personal relevance).


(1) Whereas all Canadians are heavily taxed, perhaps none are more punitively taxed than Quebeckers. Most professionals have net income taxes (i.e., provincial plus federal) hovering at around 50%. We are also levied consumption/sales taxes at both the provincial and federal levels. The combined rate is just shy of 13% of purchases although the Quebec rate will be increasing over the next two years. In other words, it is insufficient that the government has already taken half of one's income. Any discretionary income that you choose to spend, the government further fleeces you. We also pay a "welcome tax" whenever we purchase a new home that corresponds to roughly 1% of the purchase price. Add to it substantial property and school taxes, and many Quebeckers will likely end up with roughly 30-35% of their yearly gross incomes. In other words, for the right to live in Quebec, many Quebeckers must fork over 65-70% of their yearly earnings. There is absolutely nothing laudable, moral, or appealing about such a system. What is the moral precept that explains why some individuals pay more than two-thirds of their yearly income to the government whereas other individuals (with no mental or physical challenges) do not contribute a single dollar to the public coffer? I should remind the readers that Canada's income tax was originally meant as a temporary measure to raise funds during WWI! We've come a long way since this "temporary" measure.

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As a slight side note, many Americans perhaps none more famously than Michael Moore, speak of the wonders of the Canadian healthcare system. Perhaps Michael Moore is unaware that many Canadians are now forced to pay for private healthcare insurance without being able to opt out of paying for public healthcare (via the high income tax rate). As a matter of fact, an increasing number of social services that are provided "gratis" to the populace are now privately purchased (e.g., a growing number of parents are now sending their kids to expensive private schools precisely because public education is rapidly deteriorating). Bottom line: Canadians continue to pay exorbitantly high taxes whilst receiving fewer services for their contributions to the public coffer.

(2) My university assigns teaching loads (i.e., the number of courses that one will teach in any given year) according to the research productivity of an individual professor. The collective agreement - another mechanism that serves to create "equality" amongst the professoriate - restricts the minimal and maximal number of courses that are taught per year, to four and six respectively. In other words, if you are Charles Darwin or Albert Einstein, you will be obligated to teach four courses (although in a few exceptions one could obtain further course remissions such as by holding a research chair or serving as editor of a journal), and if you have never published a single article or book in your entire academic career, you will teach six courses. Hence, the "reward" for being an astoundingly productive scientist is at most worth two courses to the university. Given that it costs roughly $7,000 to hire a part-time instructor to teach a course, this effectively means that Charles Darwin or Albert Einstein are at most worth $14,000 more to the university than a colleague who has NEVER contributed in any way to his academic discipline (in terms of research output). The logic behind this policy is the incessant drive to create egalitarian outcomes. Meritocracy is bad. Socialist equality is good.

E. O. Wilson, the two-time Pulitzer Prize winning author and Harvard entomologist, famously quipped regarding communism/socialism: "Great idea. Wrong species." Wilson spent much of his career studying social ants that possess highly egalitarian societies: All individuals are in the service of a queen (who is singularly assigned the reproductive duties of the colony). Hence, short of this one queen, everyone is "equal" in terms of say their sterile status (albeit individual ants might serve different roles and as such their responsibilities to the colony are indeed distinguishable). To return to the human context, humans are not equal in their talents, drives, capacities, and ambitions. Accordingly, institutional mechanisms that consistently seek to redistribute rewards (be it incomes, teaching loads, or any other metric) as to create egalitarian outcomes are antithetical to a defining feature of the human experience. To those readers who might otherwise be tempted to point out the is-ought problem...yes I am familiar with it!

The Canadian system can be construed as either the most gentle or the most repressive system, as a function of where an individual fits within the greater cog. If you are a net beneficiary of the socialist ethos (e.g., individuals who originate from multiple generations of welfare recipients) than Canada is Nirvana. On the other hand, if you are a hardworking and successful professional who is otherwise brutally taxed (in endless ways), you are likely longing for greater meritocracy and less "social justice."

Source for Image:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:WeaverAntsAgainstRedAnt.JPG

 

Gad Saad is Professor of Marketing at Concordia University and author of The Evolutionary Bases of Consumption and The Consuming Instinct.

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