One person can earn 10,000 times what another earns, for the same amount of work. Is the one person worth more than the other?
The argument goes that some people generate more wealth than others, so they should be rewarded more. In a very blinkered, tunnelled view of life, it is a valid view. Generally, the view is willingly tunnelled since it is promoted by people who have a vested interest in the validity of the view. They also have quite a lot of wealth with which to influence others to support this view. It is a self-sustaining cultural tradition.
There is also a wider perspective.
The gains of society are so vast and diverse that we could not realistically have imagined them even 200 years ago. They have been achieved through the joint contribution of literally billions of people, both past and present. It has been a sensational journey of experience, wisdom, creativity, investment, blood, sweat and tears. We have developed an infrastructure that is breathtaking in its scope. There is no single individual who has ever had such a profound affect on our state or pace of progress as the cumulative impact of modern society. Plenty of individuals have slowed down or sped up aspects of it, but the impact of any single individual is quite marginal when the entire spectrum of progress is viewed.
Even discounting the gift of infrastructure left to us by our ancestors, the basic functioning of society itself is dependent on the input of billions. There is no successful business man or woman alive who could ever have achieved their enormous success or financial reward without direct and indirect access to billions of people around the world, from workers to law enforcers, from peace makers to consumers. Our vast gains come from the collaborative efforts of the billions. Where we credit success for gains disproportionately to individuals, it is a function of their power, not of their individual achievement.
Many people look at the success of an organisation, and point to its leader. They would say the leader has achieved success in a way that no-one else could, and that they should be entitled to a disproportionate share of the gain, commensurate with their part in the overall gains achieved. Steve Jobs springs to mind. It is a strong argument that Apple would not have become worth hundreds of billions of pounds without his input. If that argument is valid, it was only fair that Steve Jobs should be entitled to a fair share of the wealth he generated. If the argument is valid that payment should follow contribution, then should his parents not be entitled to at least 50% of his wealth. After all, he would not even have been in existence without their contribution? So it is an equally strong argument that Apple would not have become worth so much without their contribution. And what about his teachers? Surely one or two of his teachers put him in possession of some of the skills he needed to achieve his success. Should they share in his fortune? And what about his lawyers? Without a secure legal basis, Apple could never have raised the funds to invest in what seemed to most of us at the time to be a hair-brained scheme to sell a pocket sized music player for 10 times its contemporary hi-fidelity competitors. Who would ever have invested in Apple if they could not be assured that Steve Jobs could not just pocket the money without batting an eye lid? Some might argue that the lawyers did get at least their fair share. But what about the police and army? Without them, the lawyers could never get enforced the judgements they spent so much time winning. Why did they not get an equivalent share to the lawyers? Another arguable contributor is Microsoft, who bailed out Apple in the mid 1990s, at a time when Apple where about to fold. Microsoft were at their pinnacle of dominance in the IT sector, and faced the real prospect that their their wings would be clipped by the US and European authorities if they did not retain the fig leaf of an argument that the then-puny Apple was a competitor of theirs. Should Apple pay some of their wealth to Microsoft in proportion to their direct contribution in Apple's success?
Unlike the input of his parents, his teachers, the police and Microsoft, and a myriad of others who contributed in part to Apple's success, Steve Jobs input could be withheld at the time the wage structures were being negotiated, whereas all the others had already done what they were going to do. They had no bargaining chips. It was the power Steve Jobs had that determined the wealth he generated from his extra-ordinary success. He was never in a position of delivering such individual genius that he could have achieved his success without the input of millions of other people. That the vast majority of wealth was steered in his direction is not a function of his having invented hi-fidelity music alone. He steered the ship, he did not build it single handedly.
In our supremely complex society of today, we can happily reward people by reference to their power, but we can not realistically value someone's worth by reference to their individual performance. So how should we value one person's worth relative to another?
Imagine two people, laying on a table, so completely disabled they neither can not stand or talk. Consider each of their worth.
The older person on the table is three months from death. He will never get up and speak again. He will never produce further income. He is completely dependent on others for absolutely everything. Does he have worth? Does it make a difference to your view that his name is Steve Jobs? Steve Jobs has massive personal wealth. Does that change what he is worth at that time? One more factor may be relevant to the view. His death of cancer will move a doctor, who feels her life has been transformed for the better by her iPhone, iPad and Apple Mac, to search even harder for a cure to cancer. It may turn out that the doctor's diverted efforts may save millions of people if she finds a cure, or none if she fails. Yet her diverted efforts may have prejudiced hundreds of patients whose lives she might otherwise have touched with her deep compassion. Did Steve Jobs have worth even during the act of dying?
The younger person on the table is three months from life. As a baby, she is also completely dependent on others for absolutely everything. She has achieved nothing, other than giving her parents unparalleled pleasure. She is lying in Cambodia where she was born. Does she, with all her future potential ahead of her, have more or less worth than the wealthier, influential dying man whose personal potential is now spent? Her name is Phymean Noun. She will grow to adulthood in a reasonably unaffluent manner, in a fairly deprived part of the world. She will walk to work one day, along the mountains of rubbish that are disposed of in piles in the middle of the towns in fairly deprived parts of the world. She will notice children scurrying around the piles of rubbish, along with other scavenging animals. She will notice that the children are surviving on rubbish. She will be applauded at their condition and will resolve to help. She will found the People Improvement Organisation, that will provide slum children with an education, food, health care services and a safe environment in order to give them the opportunity to improve their lives. She will never had personal wealth. But through her efforts, thousands of slum children will be lifted from poverty. At least one of those children will rise out of poverty to create personal wealth, and many of them will influence many others in ways that will never be quantified. At three months old, is Phymean Noun worth more or less than Steve Jobs at three months before his death?
Basic Human Worth
Humans influence each other, in uniquely human ways. When we enter a room where dozens of people are laughing, we laugh. When we enter a hushed environment, we quieten down. If we do not, we are acutely aware of disquiet directed towards us. When someone is sad, it affects us. When someone does not like us, we sense it. But we can never predict the outcome of anyone's influence, and it is very rare to be able to quantify the full impact of our influence. People even influence the world after their death. The Austrian Archduke Ferdinand had a far more profound influence in his dying on 28 June 1914 than he ever did during his life. His murder sparked the First World War, which resulted in the death of over 15 million people throughout the world, and consigned multiples more to poverty, destitution and ill health.
Human worth is a little like water. Both are homogeneous, both being the same everywhere. Water's impact depends on what happens to it. It can as easily give us life through drink as take it away though drowning. It provides gentle comfort to a child whose mother uses it to soothe a graze, and it destroys the entire population of islands when propelled by the eruptive power of a tsunami.
Human worth is the same in that its impact depends on how it is used. Our worth is integrally tied up with the way our lives interact so fundamentally with each other, the millions of people we do not know and will never know but whose lives impact on ours in one way or another, and the influence we have on one another. One person's tiny influence on another person may be multiplied a million fold, in ways none of us can ever predict or even know. Each of us has the potential of the butterfly wing whose tiny flap is the catalyst that sparks the storm. Our individual success is very much more to do with where and how we flap our tiny wings than the quantity of air we can move alone.
Everyone has worth. Everyone's worth is equal in the same way that all water is equal to all other water. We should not confuse human worth with the reward we judge to be fair, based on our partial, vested capacity to assess the value of individual personal action. Otherwise, we will devise policies and behave in ways that will fail to realise the full potential of our collaborative efforts.