Monday, 31 May 2010

Contentment and the common enemy

Casting my mind back several decades to my student days I recall observing a phenomenon associated with communal living. Almost all my fellow students spent some time in college accommodation before finding a flat to share with others. In the normal run of things three or four would share because money was extremely tight and the overheads of rent, rates (now council tax), water rates, standing charges for electricity and gas were little different for a three-bedroomed flat than a two so it made sense to get a bigger place and spread the cost three ways or more. I found a flat together with two friends. From the very day we moved in one of them became marginalised, as we would put it today, it was me and my chum against her whenever a dispute arose. Interestingly, the same was seen with all trios of sharers I knew. Indeed when four shared it was three-against-one.

As far as I could tell there was nothing intentionally malicious about it, it was just how things worked out. When there was a dispute about what colour to paint the living room or whether to buy logs or coal for the fire a decision had to be taken and the majority would rule. What I found interesting at the time and find interesting still is that being in the majority added to the pleasure of life. Had we all agreed about everything there would have been no sense of victory or accomplishment in getting ones way. It goes without saying that on a great many matters we were all in agreement, disputes were few and never bitter nonetheless I found elation in being on the winning side when push came to shove. The victors went to the pub and gloated, criticising their common enemy in order to boost their egos. Without a common enemy that experience would have been lost, there would have been no victory and no elation, life would have been less enjoyable.

What was absurd about the whole situation was that our flatmate was not really our enemy at all. She was a lovely girl and, I presume, is now a lovely middle aged lady; but she was our enemy for certain limited purposes and in that capacity she enhanced our lives. Sadly I have now lost contact with both old flatmates, for all I know they are in contact again and bitching about me.

We see the same phenomenon in all sorts of circumstances. In the workplace the foreman or manager is seen as the enemy of the serfs and forcing him to reverse his position gives pleasure far beyond any temporary material benefits that are received. A football club goes through a bad run and the supporters turn on the manager or owners. They get their way and cheer the replacement manager/owner to the rafters until next season when the exercise is repeated. Do they really cheer the new manager or owner, or do they cheer themselves for having won a battle whether or not the club's fortunes improve? British Airways cabin crew seem to be following this pattern with their current series of strikes. They might or might not gain long term benefits if the strikes result in their present demands being met, but you can be sure their greater pleasure would be winning the battle rather than enjoying what happens next.

It is only a short step to offer the prospect of winning battles as a political strategy to gain support. It matters not whether winning these particular battles will benefit those whose support you seek because they will support you for the chance of enjoying victory even if it leaves them out of pocket or out of work. This has been seen over the last couple of years with calls for penal rates of tax on "The Rich". No one can be certain that the future will mirror the past but all experience from around the world indicates that taxing income at more than around 40% results in a fall in tax revenue (because some move overseas to avoid it, some deliberately earn less and others find it worthwhile to spend a few quid on a specialist accountant to reduce their tax bill to the absolute minimum possible). That evidence suggests that a proposal to tax income at 50% would be counter-productive and should not be tried because it is likely to require higher taxes on the non-rich to make up the shortfall.

The policy has nothing to do with raising revenue and everything to do with gaining support from those who are encouraged to believe there is a group known as "The Rich" against whom a victory can be won. Support is given because the non-rich smell the sweet scent of victory, they sense the chance to get one over an opponent. The opponent only exists as an opponent because he has been described as such by those who invent the battle. Once the policy becomes law those who were persuaded to support it have won, they feel good, their lives have been enhanced by being a winner. Yet it seems likely from past experience that they are the very people who will have to pay when the policy backfires. That doesn't matter to the politicians, they will put forward a different excuse for having to raise taxes on the non-rich, their concern is getting votes by any means they can.

Lest either of my readers is tempted to tell me of Mencken's hobgoblins don't bother, I know them well but my point is different. He asserted, I believe correctly, that setting up mythical ogres gains votes because people want to be protected from the threat those ogres appear to pose. My point is that the prospect of victory against a fictitious enemy gains votes because victory is a benefit in itself whether or not the defeated person posed any threat. Promise the thrill of victory, any victory, and people will say "yes please, I'd like a slice of that". They say it because they know it will make them feel good. The more bitter, envious and spiteful they are, the better it will make them feel. It is a perfect tactic for the political left.


Antisthenes said...

Sad but true, in my experience the one in the minority is invariable the one making the best decisions or is in the right. For the reasons you have put forward that explains why that is irrelevant and why at the end of the day societies ends up in a mess.

Stan said...

This is the central problem with the "class war" - i.e. that it deliberately pits one part of society against another creating resentment and conflict rather than contentment and co-operation.

Regards, living with flatmates - I moved out of my parental home before I was 20 and into a 2 bedroom flat which I shared with 3 other guys of a similar age. Yes, we had to share bedrooms - but not beds. In fact, we didn't have beds - just mattresses on the floor. We didn't have much of anything, really - but still managed to have a good time.

These days people stay with their parents until they can afford to have their own place all to themselves plus every modern appliance and gadget known to man, a brand new car and three holidays a year - and they wonder why they are still living at their parents home in their mid thirties!

rinky stingpiece said...

Evidence (should it be needed) that the BNP is a left wing party; not a right wing one...